The University of Nottingham was found to have not increased the budget for its counselling service, despite calls from the government for institutions to do more to support student mental health.
The University of Nottingham was found to have not increased the budget for its counselling service, despite calls from the government for institutions to do more to support student mental health.
dietrichherlan via Getty Images

Universities See Huge Increase In Students Seeking Help For Mental Health Problems

Students feel helpless despite increased spending on campus counselling, investigation reveals.

Universities have seen a huge increase in the number of students seeking help for mental health problems as bigger budgets are approved to help cope, HuffPost UK has found.

Rising demand for campus counselling comes amid a backdrop of financial pressure, potential reductions in tuition fees, and shortages of clinical staff such as mental health nurses and psychologists, leaving some students feeling unsupported as they struggle to get help.

Figures obtained by HuffPost UK through freedom of information requests show the number of students accessing mental health support at top unis increased by 76% on average between 2012-13 and 2017-18.

Underlining the sector’s attempts to respond, comparable figures showed budgets for university mental health services rose by an average of 71% over the same time period.

On Thursday, vice-chancellors were encouraged by ministers to continue to improve support on campuses. Damian Hinds, the education secretary, used University Mental Health Day to announce the formation of a new “taskforce” which aims to bridge the gap between school and higher education.

Research released this week laid bare the scale of the mental health challenge facing higher education. A massive study of 37,500 students, conducted by The Insight Network and Dig-In, revealed one-fifth – or 7,500 – had a current mental health diagnosis. A third – or 12,500 – said they experienced a serious psychological issue for which they felt they needed professional help.

The same research showed increased thoughts of self-harm among students as well as relatively high levels of substance misuse. According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of students claiming disability allowances for a diagnosed mental health condition has doubled since 2014.

In interviews with HuffPost UK, students said that they faced long delays for help from campus services.

Laura Hanton expected her second term at the University of Nottingham to go as well as her first. As a first-year English student, Laura had thrown herself into student life in Nottingham, joined clubs and societies, and balanced the demands of a busy social life whilst attending lectures and seminars. But then things changed.

Laura Hanton, now 22, found her university's mental health service to be unhelpful.
Laura Hanton, now 22, found her university's mental health service to be unhelpful.
LAURA HANTON

“I came back after Christmas hoping it would be the same and it was a lot harder for some reason. I started getting really anxious about going to lectures and about going out,” Laura, now 22, told HuffPost UK in an interview.

“I didn’t want to try anything new. I didn’t want to go to clubs and societies. And then that fed into depression. At one point, I was struggling to get up.”

For the rest of her first year, Laura struggled without professional help. “I wasn’t aware of much. I knew there was a counselling service but I was very reluctant to go. I didn’t want to accept I had an issue, or accept or ask for help,” she said.

But having finally drawn the courage to attend her university’s counselling service at the beginning of her second year, Laura was left confused and upset by an apparent lack of help.

“It wasn’t a good experience,” she said. “I think it was mainly because they were very oversubscribed and in demand, but they said that they didn’t think I was ‘ready’ for therapy.

“They didn’t really explain it and I remember going away from it thinking ‘that’s a bit weird’. I felt disappointed. It takes a lot to set yourself up to go somewhere and ask for help. It was really difficult, and then to be told that they can’t help me was a bit of a slap in the face. Things just got worse from there.”

Following her experience with Nottingham’s counselling service, Laura’s mental health worsened and she developed an eating disorder. Observant family members intervened and, in the end, she returned home to Dorset and received NHS treatment, pausing her studies for a year to do so. The University of Nottingham said it would review Laura’s concerns.

“From my experiences and my friends’ experiences, it seems like the waiting lists are very, very long,” Laura added. “You literally have to wait weeks to get an appointment and even then it is a consultation. I also think that the therapy they offer at university isn’t enough.”

The issue of student mental health has led the government to announce a renewed focus on the “transition” between school and university, with the creation of a new group of specialist advisors to guide institutions and government. “Our universities are world-leading in so many areas and I want them to be the best for mental health support too,” Damian Hinds said of the strategy. “Pinpointing these key areas which can affect student mental health is essential.” Universities UK, which represents institutions, said the announcement was “really significant”.

The figures obtained by HuffPost UK from most of the top 40 UK universities, as defined by the latest Complete University Guide, also revealed:

  • at least seven institutions spent more than £1 million on mental health support last year, compared to 2012 when just one university spent that much on mental health services;
  • vast differences in budgets for campus mental health services exist, with comparable figures showing a £1.4m difference between the lowest-spending institution and the highest-spending university last year;
  • the University of Nottingham, where Laura Hanton sought help in her second year, was the only institution in the research that did not increase its budget for counselling between 2012 and 2017.

Yet policy experts said assessing a university’s mental health provision purely in terms of expenditure may not reveal the full picture.

“Every university has a different student population with different needs,” Rachel Piper, from the charity Student Minds, which is a part of the new mental health taskforce, said.

“We’ve seen some universities across the board who have students who are more likely to develop mental health difficulties because of their backgrounds, so that university may want to allocate more budget.”

She added that seeing budget figures increase was reassuring and that a rise suggested the higher education sector was increasingly considering mental health in its financial planning.

HuffPost UK’s research provides a small snapshot of spending on campus-based services during a time period in which many budgets of NHS mental health trusts have stagnated, barely risen above inflation, or declined, according to research by the King’s Fund health charity.

“One of our concerns is that there remain considerable issues with access to services and quality,” Helen Gilburt, who has studied mental health funding for the King’s Fund, said of NHS services.

The trend looks set to continue. Gilburt and her colleagues reported in December last year that 56% of finance directors from NHS trusts providing mental health services were uncertain or concerned about making their planned level of cost savings in the coming year.

“One of the big limiting factors isn’t just about money, it’s about the workforce,” Gilburt added. “You can pile loads of money into the mental health system but at the moment there is a national challenge around workforce, particularly around nurses.”

Squeezed budgets and delays within local NHS mental health services have led many students to turn towards campus mental health services instead.

“You think ‘well if I’m not getting anywhere with the NHS, I’ll try the university’ because they’ve got the support,” Abigail Tennant, a mature student at Northumbria University – which is not among the top 40 – said in an interview.

Abigail, 32, who is a single parent to two children, said she waited several weeks for her first appointment with Northumbria’s counselling service when she felt unwell late last year.

“I filled in a form and then was asked to call and make an appointment and that was a five-week wait,” she said. “For most people, when you ask for help you’re in a position where you kind of need it. So waiting until January just made me feel I should muddle on myself.

“There was no contact between that time. There was no response to the initial letter I wrote to sign up to the service.”

Abigail is now working with Northumbria to improve its systems. The university said it had increased mental health budgets by 57% over the past three years and that nearly 2,100 students accessed its support services last year.

“We tailor and prioritise support according to the needs of each student; whether through counsellors and mental health practitioners, guided self-help or stress and mindfulness workshops. We have developed our support to be accessible 24/7,” a spokesperson said.

PhD physics student Daisy Shearer, 22, found the wait for counselling at the University of Surrey had a “big impact” on her health as weeks turned into months.

“I was offered six counselling sessions after a long three-month wait. I only attended four as by then exam time had arrived and my anxiety prevented me from even leaving the house,” she said.

“I can’t really remember if I was ever given an explicit reason for the wait. They just said that there was a waiting list and I now know that the university counselling service is incredibly understaffed for the number of students they need to support.”

PhD physics student Daisy Shearer encountered problems accessing counselling at the University of Surrey as an undergraduate.
PhD physics student Daisy Shearer encountered problems accessing counselling at the University of Surrey as an undergraduate.
DAISY SHEARER

Daisy added: “It definitely had a big impact at the time as I was unsure as to whether my depression was ‘bad enough’ to warrant professional help so this made me doubt it even more.

“There was definitely an impact on my grades and my self-esteem was at an all-time low. Luckily I had a lot of support from my family during this time which I am incredibly grateful for as I think this kept me afloat.” The University of Surrey said it was “saddened to hear of anyone who doesn’t feel they received the support we pride ourselves on providing and welcome feedback from all of our students who use our services”.

The University of Nottingham said it took a ”‘whole-university’ approach to student mental health”. The institution educates students “to take care of their mental health, notice changes, seek care should they need and reduce the stigma attached to mental health,” a spokesperson said.

Nottingham said it spent more than £1 million on its “mental health, counselling and pastoral services” in a subsequent statement, but it didn’t provide further information. The figure differed from the data we obtained by FOI, which related only to its counselling service.

HuffPost UK reported last year on the confusing picture regarding mental health policies and procedures at top British universities. The University of Birmingham, which we found did not have a single unified policy concerning student mental health, confirmed this week it is now developing a new “strategic framework” to bring together best practice from across its campus.

Separate research by this website also revealed wildly different approaches around who can be told what when a student’s mental health declines. An “opt-in” approach to data sharing has been praised by some parents of students who have died by suspected suicide whilst studying. Universities Minister Chris Skidmore wrote in a blog on HuffPost UK on Thursday that he is supportive of efforts to modify rules around data sharing.

Meanwhile, ongoing pre-inquest hearings into the suspected suicides of two students, Natasha Abrahart and Ceara Thacker, at Bristol and Liverpool universities respectively have heard evidence of alleged miscommunication between GPs, the NHS, and the universities regarding their mental health treatment. Full inquests will be heard later this year.

FACT BOX – HOW WE GATHERED THE DATA

HuffPost UK sent the same questions to the top 40 UK universities, as defined by the Complete University Guide 2019, via a freedom of information request last November.

We asked institutions how many students were enrolled in or treated by student mental health services each year between 2012-13 and 2017-18.

We also asked how much the universities had spent on campus-based mental health services over the same time period.

Only 38 of the universities responded and not all the figures we received could be fairly compared like-for-like due to differences in the way universities classify services.

But the comparable figures showed an overall increase in the numbers of students accessing mental health services rose by 76% between 2012-13 and 2017-18, while budgets rose by 71%.

Seven institutions out of the 38 which responded spent more than £1 million on mental health services.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.

This article is part of HuffPost UK’s series investigating student mental health across the UK. If you would like to get in touch with our reporter, email George.Bowden@huffpost.com.