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Prioritising student mental health is ‘non-negotiable’, minister tells university bosses

'To make this happen, leadership from the top is essential'

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Sunday 16 September 2018 00:01 BST

There should be no room for negotiation over prioritising student mental health, an education minister has told university leaders.

Sam Gyimah, who has written to university heads as Freshers’ Week gets underway, has called for greater leadership from the top to ensure student wellbeing is the number one priority.

In the letter, the universities minister has urged vice chancellors to not only commit to “student’s education” – but to also focus on the “immediate” challenge of student mental health in the sector.

His comments come amid growing concern about how universities address a rising number of students with mental health problems who need support.

Ten students from the University of Bristol and two from University of West England (UWE), also in Bristol, have died in the past two years. A number have been confirmed as suicides.

In the letter, which has been sent as tens of thousands of students begin university, Mr Gyimah said: “With the new academic year upon us, I'm sure you would agree that good mental health and wellbeing underpins successful participation and attainment.

“Collectively, we must prioritise the wellbeing and mental health of our students - there is no negotiation on this. To make this happen, leadership from the top is essential."

In June this year, the government announced a University Mental Health Charter in Bristol which hopes to drive up standards in promoting student mental health by recognising good practice.

The Charter is expected to go live in 2019/2020 – but Mr Gyimah said “we should be acting now” as he said a system-wide approach to addressing student wellbeing was "critical”.

“I expect high standards to be set within the Charter that will require each university’s senior leadership team to deliver positive change,” the minister said.

He added: “I very much look forward to hearing more on the progress you're making with your pastoral care offer as I continue to meet with institutional leaders in coming months."

In May, hundreds of students took part in a march in Bristol to demand changes to mental health services at Bristol University after there were three student deaths in just three weeks.

Speaking to The Independent, Professor Hugh Brady, vice chancellor of the University of Bristol, said: “Any suicide is a real tragedy and affects friends, family and staff. But to have a number in quick succession really tears at the heart of the institution.

“So students rightly want to see that we are making new investments, or changing our procedures. They want to see that we are making mental health a top priority for the institution and that we are not afraid to make new investments when required. That is exactly what we are doing.”

From this September, a team of 24/7 professionals providing pastoral care will be introduced in the halls of residence at Bristol University, alongside a team of wellbeing advisers in academic schools.

Professor Brady added: “Certainly for me, [student wellbeing] is a top priority for our institution. I think there is a real appetite among UK universities to take the lead in this area.”

At least 95 university students took their own lives in the last academic year – and this month, Universities UK (UUK) with charity Papyrus launched new guidance on preventing student suicides – which calls on leaders of higher education institutions to prioritise student wellbeing.

Professor Steve West, chair of UUK’s mental health advisory group and vice chancellor of UWE, said: “With 50 per cent of school leavers now entering higher education, our mentally healthy universities will play a leading role in supporting a generation of young adults to thrive and succeed.

“We welcome the minister's focus on this issue and his support for the sector to achieve this transformation.”

He added: “Universities see the mental health of students and staff as a priority.

“Universities take seriously their duty of care to these young adults if they get into difficulties. We are proud of the work done by student support and welfare services around the country.”

Speaking to The Independent before Freshers’ Week, Professor West suggested that students should declare eating disorders and any history of self-harm under a new section on Ucas application forms to encourage more students to tell institutions about their mental health before they arrive.

For confidential support call the Samaritans on 116 123.

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