Why we need to act on World Mental Health Day

Monday 10-10-2016 - 10:47

NUS Disabled Students' Officer James Elliott gives his top three thoughts this World Mental Health Day.

1. Institutions must invest in their mental health services

Recent NUS research with Time to Change has demonstrated that four in five students had experienced mental health problems at one time or another, but only half of those have a proper diagnosis - meaning they haven’t accessed support.

Many students have experienced huge waiting times for counselling services, and the reason for this is simple: services are underfunded, and there aren't enough counsellors on campuses. While Vice-Chancellors saw a pay rise of 6 per cent last year, many counselling services need large investment.

A recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute recommended that universities adopt a counsellor-to-student ratio of around 1:1,358 in order to reduce waiting times, yet the current average of universities’ counsellor-to-student ratios is roughly 1:5,000. In other words, universities are nowhere near making their commitment to support students struggling with their mental health.

The situation is similar if not worse in colleges, who have been hit by huge funding cuts since 2010. Now 55 per cent of colleges have experienced cutbacks to the support they could offer over the past three years, according to the Association of Colleges, while 42 per cent have no full-time mental health worker or counsellor.

We should demand government invests in education, and that our institutions invest in mental health services.

2. Wellbeing and Peer Support cannot be a replacement for counselling services

Many student unions have done fantastic work in recent years building up peer support networks, Nightline services and other forms of well-being support, which can work to improve the general mental health of the student body.

Those efforts are inspiring and should continue, but as a movement we must pay careful attention to where the line lies between well-being support and clinical services. Counselling is a difficult practice to get right, even for the experts, and our students deserve the best care and treatment they can get.

That means that we must be alert to any attempt by institutions to cutback on counselling services, especially where they argue that well-being, peer support or Nightline can step in. Well-being agendas should act to complement a well-funded counselling service, not to replace one.

We should distinguish between campaigns to promote well-being and professionalised counselling services, and not allow our services to be undermined.

3. Take a lead on starting a whole-university or whole-college approach to mental health

Mental health can’t be taken in isolation from other aspects of university life. Everything from the quality of student housing to academic pressures shapes and affects our mental health, and institutions should have a ‘whole-university’ or ‘whole-college’ approach.

That means having an institution-wide policy on mental health, and a regular working group with student representation to ensure issues that students raise are being heard and addressed. Counselling services should be ‘embedded’, by which we mean that they are integrated into the institutions, and able to influence their decision-making.

Institutions should develop links with your local NHS services for referrals, develop a system for mitigating and extenuating circumstances which account for students struggling with mental health, ensuring signposting and information are included in freshers’ week inductions, as well as training both academic and non-academic staff. Improving students’ mental health is a complex problem, and requires a complex set of solutions.

We should demand that mental health is seen as a priority by our institutions and that they develop an institution-wide policy in collaboration with students' unions and counselling services.


This year, I will be researching and developing a set of recommendations for counselling services that you can use in your student union. If you’d like to be involved, or if you’d like some resources on mental health from NUS, please email me on


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