Three Visions: how to support student mental health on campus

Wednesday 28-09-2016 - 15:04

At Zone Conferences 2016, each of our five Zones will have their own respective ‘key themes’. Following on from last week’s article focusing on the world post-Brexit, this week we move our gaze to the Welfare Zone's key theme of 'Health' and explore ways in which SUs can support student mental health on campus.

In 2015 NUS conducted research into the levels of mental distress experienced by students. Using an online survey we found:

  • 78 per cent of students consider themselves to have experienced mental health issue in the past year
  • 87 per cent reported feeling of stress
  • 77 per cent reported feelings of anxiety
  • 36 per cent reported thoughts of self-harm
  • 30 per cent reported thoughts of suicide

Research using NHS data has shown that there are certain mental health conditions that are more prevalent amongst people aged 16-21 than in the rest of the population, and these include generalised anxiety disorders, thought and acts of self-harm and attempts at suicide.

Nationally, mental health services are chronically underfunded; mental ill-health currently accounts for more than 25 per cent of the total disease burden for the NHS, but mental health services receive less than half that proportion of NHS funding (12 per cent) and the amount that goes to mental health is falling.

So in the context of increasing need for support services from students, being met by reductions in public spending on mental health, how can we support student mental health on campus?

Lobbying for more NHS spending

Under the Health and Social Care Act, spending decisions on priority areas are made locally via Care Commissioning Groups (CCGs). CCGs work by assessing local needs, deciding priorities and strategies, and then buying services on behalf of the population from providers such as hospitals, clinics and community health bodies.

CCGs are membership bodies made up of GPs, nurses, consultants and ‘lay people’ that are supposed to reflect the interests of the local population in the relevant area. The most common way for a member of the public to feed into their CCG is by participating in patient surveys and focus groups at the GP surgery.

The structure of CCGs can make it harder for students to contribute to discussions in CCGs about local priorities for a number of reasons, for example students as a group tend to have better general health and so visit their GPs less frequently than other people, for example older people, or people with chronic health conditions. Similarly, as students are often only registering with a GP for a portion of the year they may miss opportunities to provide feedback or participate in research. Without appropriate representation to CCGs healthcare issues that affect students can be missed, and therefore not receive appropriate funding. This can lead to reductions in service provision, longer waiting lists, and reluctance from GPs to refer patients for further treatment, even if it would be beneficial, to keep demand manageable.

Students need to fight to have greater representation at CCGs so that their healthcare needs are considered equally with the resident population. Particularly in areas where the student residents can swell a local population by 20 per cent they should have access to services that are appropriately funded.

NUS should support students’ unions should find ways to work with CCGs to ensure that consultation with students is carried out and that students are aware of how to contact and influence their local CCG.

Students should lend their voice to already powerful campaigns like Save Our NHS to boost the message that the NHS needs to be properly funded by central government, should remain in public ownership and should be free to everyone that needs it.

Campaigning for a better counselling service

Most universities offer some form of on-campus counselling for their students, however the quality and availability of these services varies.

On campus counselling is usually available more quickly that counselling offered by the NHS via your GP. However, the number of sessions you are entitled to with the on-campus service may be fewer than what is available from the NHS.

Furthermore, the range of mental health issues that can be dealt with by on-campus counsellors can be reduced compared to what would be available on the NHS- for example specialist addition treatment, or specific treatment for psychosis related disorders.

On-campus counselling is vital for students who are experiencing poor mental health, and in particular when they are faced with NHS services that are underfunded and hard to access. However, the majority of institutions have failed to keep up appropriate levels of funding for counsellors, and now services are overstretched.

Institutions have spent millions on advertising to boost student numbers since tuition fees were introduced, but this hasn’t been met with equal investment into the support services students rely on when they get to university or college.

Students need to call out this discrepancy and campaign to have proper funding for on-campus counselling. NUS should support students to find out the levels of funding and service provision at their institution, using Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. NUS should help SUs to campaign for more funding for training for staff, and to increase the level of provision, whilst fighting all attempts to scale-back mental health support for students.

Peer Support

Peer support plays an important role in helping students experiencing poor mental health as it is a service provided by individuals with lived experience of the same or similar issue. Peer support is non-judgemental and often far less formal than attending a counselling session or going to a GP for help.

Peer support has shown to be a safe and effective method of helping people experiencing a wide range of mental health issues, from stress to eating disorders to coping with bereavement. One of the strengths of peer support is its focus around community and inclusiveness, where peers demonstrate empathy for those using the service, and also provide hope and motivation by removing stigma and decreasing feelings of isolation. 

Peer support is often provided by trained unpaid volunteers, and as such can be a very cost-effective method for providing support for students. Early interaction with a peer support network may be enough to prevent some students from spiralling into situations of worsening mental health, which eventually would lead to medical intervention.

NUS should support students unions to set up their own peer support programmes, and should work with organisations to spread awareness of the efficacy of peer support with institutions.

Which one would you choose? Or do you think a mix of two or all of them are needed to create a sustainable model for student support? Or do you think there is a different answer?

Registration for Zone Conferences will close at 5pm on Tuesday 11 October. All delegates will be twinned with delegates, where possible from the same union, unless a single room supplement is paid - more details on the registration page.



Features, Shape Our Work, Welfare, Zone Conferences

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