Making student mental health a priority

September 19th, 2018

The Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has written to all university Vice Chancellors in England, calling on them to make the mental health of their students a priority.

The letter recognises that universities have done much to foster a supportive and inclusive environment, but highlights that challenges still face universities and their students – particularly as new students start their studies over the coming weeks.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Shearer West welcomed the focus on student mental health. In her response to the Minister, Professor West highlights the work already taking place at the University to support both undergraduate and postgraduate students, and the plans in place to improve this support.

Read the full text of the VC’s response below.

Dear Sam,

Many thanks for your letter. At the University of Nottingham we share your concern about student mental health and wellbeing, and take our responsibilities to our students incredibly seriously.

We start with the belief that, like our physical health, mental health can be cared for proactively. Our first step is to show our students how they can do this. Through our HealthyU campaign we educate and encourage students to take care of their mental health, equipping them with the tools they need to notice changes in their mental health, as well as seeking the care and support they need to address them. We also work towards changing the attitudes that people hold towards mental health — reducing the stigma around this subject is crucial.

HealthyU is a collaborative project, drawing in staff and student groups from across the institution, including Sport and the Students’ Union, as well as specialist external organisations. Staff are also trained in mental health promotion so that they reinforce these messages in their interactions with students.

We involve the widest possible group of staff members to ensure the culture of recognition, support and treatment of mental health is comprehensive across the whole institution. Welfare is everyone’s responsibility. We can all play our part in supporting students’ mental health. To this end we are rolling out Mental Health First Aid training across the whole institution, having already invested in upskilling members of our team who can now train others in this vitally-important topic.

Whilst all staff can help, there are some within the University who have specific responsibilities. Within schools, Personal Tutors provide one-to-one support and play an important part in identifying and supporting students who are struggling. Every school within the University has an identified Welfare Officer who supports the work of Personal Tutors and enhances welfare support locally. Our Welfare Officers have detailed knowledge of central welfare services so can actively refer students onwards as needed.

As well as supporting students where they study, we also support them where they live. Within our University Halls of Residence we have a Pastoral Care team who provide key welfare support. This pastoral care extends into the community, where students in other accommodation receive support from our Off Campus Student Affairs team.

Our University Security Service also plays a crucial part in responding to crisis situations, and concerns which arise out of hours. We aim to have 100% of this team trained as Mental Health First Aiders by the end of this academic year, so that they can provide the best possible support to students in crisis situations. The Security team have a close working relationship with other University mental health services. When a student is identified as needing specialist help, they can connect them through to the right support.

The University also has two key specialist mental health services available: the Counselling Service and Mental Health Advisory Service. Counselling is a large team of qualified psychotherapists who provide counselling support to both staff and students. Primarily providing one-to-one support, they also run a range of groups and workshops.

The Mental Health Advisory Service is a smaller team of mental health professionals employed by the University to provide advice and support to students with more significant mental health problems. It is important that students can access statutory services where needed rather than replicate support from specialist NHS services, and this team helps students to access those external services. The link between University and statutory services is crucial so that we can ensure that students receive the appropriate therapeutic interventions that cannot and should not be provided by Universities. The importance of this link was noted by Universities UK in their recent report Minding our future and will remain a key element of our work. The Mental Health Advisory team also help manage students who are in crisis to ensure they can quickly access effective support.

The University of Nottingham is committed to raising and addressing issues relating to postgraduate student welfare, both internally and at a national level. The UK Council for Graduate Education’s ‘Postgraduate Mental Health and Wellbeing Working Group’ Chair is a University of Nottingham colleague. We are also members of the UKRI/Research England PGR Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Catalyst Programme Evaluation Advisory Group which is responsible for the Catalyst projects funded in spring 2018. On campus, postgraduate mental health and wellbeing is now a core topic at Graduate School induction events for new postgraduate students starting their studies this autumn, and going forward.

University teams also work closely with the Students’ Union to support students. The SU has a range of student volunteer groups and initiatives here including a Student Minds group which provides peer support and self-help to students with mental health problems, and the Welfare in Sport initiative which aims to improve the accessibility and inclusiveness of sports teams to students with poor mental health. Mental health awareness training is also provided to SU welfare officers and key student groups offering support to other students.

Finally, we have already had discussion with Student Minds about the development of the University Mental Health Charter and we look forward to adopting this once launched. We will continue to invest in our services to ensure that our students are best supported.

We are pleased that, as Minister, you are ensuring such a strong focus on this area. We would therefore be delighted to welcome you to the University of Nottingham, to meet with our teams working in mental health and with other staff and students who would be willing to share their experiences. I do hope you will consider visiting us.

Shearer West

Vice-Chancellor, University of Nottingham

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