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Students: Mental Illness

Question for Department for Education

UIN 2181, tabled on 17 May 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what steps he plans to take to tackle the mental ill health incidence increase in university students.

Answered on

20 May 2021

Student mental health and suicide prevention are key priorities for this government. We continue to work closely with the higher education (HE) sector to promote good practice. Universities are not only experts in their student population, but also best placed to identify the needs of their particular student body.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has overall policy responsibility for young people’s mental health. We continue to work closely with them to take steps to develop mental health and wellbeing support.

On 27 March 2021, DHSC published the ‘COVID-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan’: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-mental-health-and-wellbeing-recovery-action-plan. It is backed by £500 million of funding, and its aims are to address waiting times for mental health services, to give more people the mental health support they need and to invest in the NHS workforce. £13 million will be used to accelerate progress to support young adults aged 18 to 25. This group includes university students and those not in education or training, who have reported worst mental health outcomes during the COVID-19 outbreak, and who sometimes currently fall between the gaps between children’s and adult services.

While it is for HE providers to determine what welfare and counselling services they need to provide to their students to offer that support, the government is proactive in promoting good practice in this area. We continue to work closely with Universities UK on embedding the Stepchange programme within the sector: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/stepchange.

Stepchange calls on HE leaders to adopt mental health as a strategic priority and to take a whole-institution approach, embedding it across all policies, cultures, curricula and practice. The Stepchange programme relaunched in March 2020 as the Mentally Healthy Universities programme. The University Mental Health Charter, announced in June 2018, is backed by the government and led by the HE sector: https://www.studentminds.org.uk/charter.html. The charter, developed in collaboration with students, staff and partner organisations, aims to drive up standards of practice, including leadership, early intervention and data collection.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, I have stressed the importance of protecting student and staff wellbeing. We recognise that many students are facing additional mental health challenges due to the disruption and uncertainty caused by the outbreak. I have engaged with universities on this issue and have written to Vice Chancellors on numerous occasions during the past year, most recently last month, outlining that student welfare should remain a priority. I have also convened a working group of representatives from the HE and health sectors to specifically address the current and pressing issues that students are facing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

My hon. Friend, the Minister for Children and Families and I have also convened a Mental Health in Education Action Group to drive action to mitigate the impact of the outbreak on the mental health and wellbeing of children, young people and staff in nurseries, schools, colleges and universities.

We expect HE providers to continue to support their students, which has included making services accessible from a distance whilst restrictions have been in place. We encourage students to stay in touch with the welfare teams at their HE provider, as these services are likely to continue to be an important source of support. Many providers have bolstered their existing mental health services, and adapted delivery mechanisms including reaching out to students who may be more vulnerable. Staff at universities and colleges have been proactive in supporting their students, showing resourcefulness and there are many examples of good practice.

We have worked with the Office for Students (OfS) to provide Student Space, a dedicated mental health and wellbeing platform for students. Student Space has been funded by up to £3 million from the OfS in the 2020/21 academic year. We have also asked the OfS to allocate £15 million towards student mental health in 2021/22 through proposed reforms to Strategic Priorities grant funding to help address the challenges to student mental health posed by the transition to university, given the increasing demand for mental health services. This will target those students in greatest need of such services, including vulnerable groups and hard to reach students.

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