Student groups most at risk of poor #MentalHealth will benefit from more targeted support through a £1million government funding boost, it has been announced on #UniversityMentalHealthDay (5 March).

The funding will create new projects to support groups of students research suggests could be more ‘at risk’ of developing a mental health condition, such as black or ethnic minority students, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, LGBT+ students or those with a disability.

The money, provided by the Department for Health and Social Care, will go to the universities regulator the Office for Students (OfS), who is inviting bidders to submit proposals that will target and help students who might be at greater risk of mental ill health or who may face barriers to getting support.

In a 2019 survey, 17% of students reported having a mental health condition (up from 12% in 2016) and one in four students say they often or always feel lonely, according to a report by HEPI.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: 

“Going to university can be a really challenging time, especially if you face added pressures or if you are balancing studies alongside other commitments like carers and mature students.

“It is vital no student is put at risk by not getting the help they need. Universities must step up to this challenge, and this funding will help them and the sector by looking at ways support can be better targeted and improved.”

OfS data has highlighted how outcomes for some student groups are more likely to be impacted by mental health problems. For example, the degree attainment gap between black and white students with a reported mental health condition is 26.8 percentage points.

Successful projects will also target groups of students who might face barriers in accessing support, like carers, part-time and international students and those on placements as part of their course.

The projects will also be judged on how they use innovative and technological approaches to addressing mental health issues, in line with the new NHS drive for improvement in digital support.

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS, said:

“All students deserve the opportunity to thrive at university and college, but for too many mental ill-health remains a significant barrier. We know that there are many factors which can impact the wellbeing of students and situations where students may be or feel more vulnerable. Through this funding we want to support innovative and strategic solutions that can help ensure that all students, regardless of their background or how they study, get the support they need.

“By working together with partners including the NHS and charities, universities and colleges have the power to address the complex issues associated with student mental ill-health. We will be sharing the effective practice that comes from this funding and driving improved mental health support for all students.”

John de Pury, Assistant Director of Policy at Universities UK and Universities UK’s mental health policy lead, said:

“We welcome this dedicated funding to identify how universities can best support those most at risk of mental health difficulties. 

"We all have mental health but people face unequal challenges to their mental health. The support that universities offer to those experiencing poor mental health must address those unequal challenges, working with students and staff to understand their diverse needs and to ensure that support services are appropriate for those of all characteristics, backgrounds and experiences.

“Universities UK has led on the development and implementation of a whole university approach to mental health, ensuring that mental health and wellbeing are at the core of all university activities and in their offer to all students and all staff.”

The Government also has an ambitious programme supporting good mental health in schools and colleges, implementing a range of measures outlined in the 2018 Green Paper. This includes introducing new Mental Health Support Teams, training for mental health leads in schools and colleges, and the £9.3 million Link Programme to ensure more joined up care with specialist NHS services.

This is alongside all children in schools being taught how to look after their mental wellbeing through compulsory relationships and health education, before university.

Students who report a mental health condition are more likely to drop out of higher education, less likely to progress into skilled work or further study, and graduate with a first or 2:1 – compared to students without a declared mental health condition. OfS data shows that these gaps widen significantly when linked with other characteristics such as ethnicity and mode of study.

Today’s announcement builds on an existing £14.5 million mental health funding programme launched by the OfS last year. Examples of successful projects to the OfS’ previous Mental Health Challenge Competition, include:

The University of the West of England, Bristol leading a project to understand and improve partnerships between higher education and the NHS at both a regional and national level to improve mental health support for students

Students in Transition at University: Aiming to Enhance project, supporting students at key educational transitions such as before university and between years of study. The project is targeted at students from ethnic minority backgrounds or who are LGBT+. It focuses on prevention and early intervention and is delivered by older students, led by the University of Sussex with the University of Brighton and the Mental Health Foundation.

The University of Birmingham establishing a hub of qualified therapists and mental health volunteers offering support for students without the need for appointments or waiting lists. Working with the Children’s Society and Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, the project will run 50 weeks per year across campus ensuring easy access for students.

Through the competition, the OfS is inviting higher education providers to develop and implement projects which provide innovative approaches to improving mental health outcomes for students.

All bids must address one of the following priorities:

  • providing targeted support for groups of students with characteristics identified as increasing the risk of poor mental health – for example ethnicity and socioeconomic background
  • groups of students who may experience barriers to accessing support due to their course, mode of study, or other characteristics – for example commuter and mature students, part-time students, carers, care leavers, postgraduates, international students and LGBT+ students.

Other criteria for judgement include how bids explore using digital technology to develop preventative strategies and how they engage with students in creating solutions.

Data published by the OfS shows that the proportion of full-time students in England declaring a mental health condition more than doubled within five years, from 1.4 per cent in 2012-13 to 3.5 per cent in 2017-18.

Students who report a mental health condition are more likely to drop out of higher education, less likely to progress into skilled work or further study, and graduate with a first or 2:1 – compared to students without a declared mental health condition. OfS data shows that these gaps widen significantly when linked with other characteristics such as ethnicity and mode of study (see note two).

The funding competition will complement our existing £14.5 million mental health Challenge Competition programme. It has funded a network of 10 projects across the country with over 50 partners including universities, further education colleges, sixth form colleges, local NHS trusts and charities.

OfS data on student mental health shows that:

Among part-time students, those who came from the most deprived areas were most likely to report having a mental health condition, while those from the least deprived were least likely to do so.

Black students with a declared mental health condition have some of the lowest continuation and attainment rates. In 2017-18, 53 per cent of black students with a reported mental health condition graduated with a first or 2:1, compared to 77 per cent of all students reporting a mental health condition. In 2016-17, 87 per cent of students with mental health conditions continued their studies after their first year – for black students the rate was 77 per cent.

Disability information (including whether a student has a mental health condition) is recorded by providers at the point of entry to higher education. Students may also declare disability information during their time in higher education and this information should be recorded by the provider.

Mental health conditions are self-reported to the provider, based on the students’ own self-assessment. If a student considers themselves to have more than one disability, they are recorded as having ‘multiple impairments’. It is not possible to see whether these disabilities include a mental health condition.

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