Hundreds of thousands of young people start new chapters in their lives when they arrive at university this week.
This is an important time of great change for them, with most leaving home, family, friends and social networks behind to come to university. Universities have a crucial role in making the time they spend with us fulfilling and rewarding.
Given the numbers of students who come to university, it should not be surprising to anyone that demand for support for mental health conditions is increasing.
This is generating increased public attention and is the backdrop against which Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has challenged the sector to do more to address the issue. The launch of a mental health charter to improve standards of support is part of the government’s response to this.
This is welcome, because it’s an issue that universities need to respond to. But it is also not something that universities or any part of the system that has contact with students can address alone.
Looking at what’s happening at universities vividly illustrates the extent of the activity taking place across the country. More than 200 initiatives are on offer at UWE Bristol alone. This ranges from providing information to students when they first arrive, to creating places for them to access support and shaping a supportive culture that gives them the confidence to raise issues with others. We are also investing in new ways to use data to better understand how students engage in life on campus.
One of the most pressing issues this work has highlighted is the need to bring organisations together to provide a network of support for undergraduates. In many cases, when students leave home they will also be leaving therapeutic support networks that they are used to – from young people’s mental health services to a new GP.
This places universities like ours in a position of providing support and direction to students, often without a full understanding of their history. It’s a major challenge, and we need to work with the NHS and partners to bridge these gaps.
In the face of this complexity, it is inspiring to hear the views of students themselves, who are best able to convey an understanding of what is needed. Those who have joined discussions with us support the improvements we are making and have been clear about the issues they face.
They have ambitions, but are disproportionately affected by the cost of housing, the jobs market, the environment and our future in Europe. Many are understandably unhappy at being termed ‘snowflakes’ when they speak about their concerns.
Given these changing pressures, it is clear that the way we support their mental health and wellbeing must adapt change too and that is what many universities are looking to deliver.
As we welcome thousands of new students leaving home for the first time, in scenes that will be replicated across the country, we appreciate that their mental health will be seen as everyone’s responsibility.
Tackling an issue as complex will not be achieved by a single measure or statement. It must be seen a team effort. If we’re able to work together and listen to students, we stand a better chance of success.
Professor Steve West CBE is Vice-Chancellor, President and CEO of the University of the West of England and Chair of Universities UK’s mental health in higher education working group