Universities ‘plugging the gaps’ in NHS services as poll suggests decline in mental health for most students

‘It is deeply troubling students are not getting support they need,’ National Union of Students says

Zoe Tidman
Wednesday 10 March 2021 22:58 GMT
One-quarter of university students who responded to an ONS survey said they felt lonely often or always (File photo)
One-quarter of university students who responded to an ONS survey said they felt lonely often or always (File photo) (Getty Images)

Universities are “plugging the gaps” for NHS mental health services, a leading body has said, as figures suggest some two-thirds of students have experienced a decline in their emotional wellbeing over the academic year.

Universities UK (UUK), which represents 140 institutions, called on ministers to urgently provide targeted funding for university mental health support services, warning these were facing an “unprecendented level of demand”.

It comes as 63 per cent of respondents to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey of higher education students in England said their wellbeing and mental health had worsened since the start of the academic year.

While the ONS found the same proportion said the same in January, the figure was higher than in November, when 57 per cent reported a decline in mental health and wellbeing from the start of the autumn term.

The latest survey – which polled around 2,700 students between 19 February and 1 March – also found more than one-quarter felt lonely often or always, compared to 8 per cent of the UK adult population over a similar period.

Alistair Jarvis, UUK chief executive, said universities had “worked extremely hard” to adapt support services during the pandemic, such as moving counselling and advice online.

“We are continuing to see significant increases in demand for university-funded support services, which were already plugging the gaps resulting from the lack of NHS resources and funding,” he added.

“The differing level of mental health support for students depending on their location remains a concern,” the body’s chief executive said, as he called on the government to put “a substantive focus on students’ mental health and wellbeing”.

Students told The Independent last month they had been away from campus for weeks or months during England’s coronavirus lockdown, which sent most courses online and told affected students to stay put where possible in early January.

Some also told The Independent they found being at university difficult amid the restrictions.

Larissa Kennedy, from the from National Union of Students (NUS), said: “It should be no surprise that almost two-thirds of students have experienced a decline in their mental health this academic year and have experienced deteriorating mental health as a result of the pandemic.”

The NUS national president added: “It is deeply troubling that students are not getting the support that they need, this is exacerbated by a lack of staff capacity to deal with the high number of cases and lack of funding for mental health services across the UK.”

University students on practical courses, who require specialist equipment and facilities, in England began returning to face-to-face teaching this week.

For all remaining students, the government has said it will review options for students to return to face-to-face lessons by the end of the Easter holidays.

The universities minister said protecting student mental health and wellbeing remains her “top priority”. The government has worked with Office for Students (OfS) to launch the online mental health platform Student Space, worth up to £3m, and asked the body to allocate £15m to mental health next year, she said.

Michelle Donelan said vice chancellors have been asked to prioritise mental health provision throughout the pandemic and can access up to £256m for this in the academic year.

She added: “The first cross-government Mental Health in Education Action Group met yesterday, and I continue to work with the sector through chairing the Higher Education Mental Health taskforce, launched in November.”

A Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson said: “We know this year has been exceptionally difficult and for many it is having a real impact on their mental health. NHS mental health services have remained open and we urge anyone who needs to support to come forward.”

They said the DHSC was providing an extra £2.3bn to help 345,000 more children and young people access NHS-funded services or school and college-based support, and announced last week £79m of the extra £500m for mental health and NHS workforce unveiled at the last spending review will be used to expand children’s mental health services.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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