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Increased mental health support needed for university students on placements

students walking through corridor

University students who go on placements as part of their degree need better support, with placement providers and universities working more closely together to reduce mental health and wellbeing risks.

Universities UK (UUK) has published a checklist for universities to help them support students in the transition to, during, and upon returning from a placement, so they are prepared for success in both this part of their course and beyond.

With placements an essential element of many degrees, UUK is highlighting how such significant changes to a student’s circumstances can have a considerable impact on their mental health and wellbeing. They may move to a different location, away from their informal and formal university support networks. This may also be their first experience joining a professional workplace, where they will experience a different physical environment, culture and learning challenges.

Campaigner Isabella De George’s brother Harrison tragically died by suicide while on a teaching placement in 2020, and she was closely consulted on the checklist. Isabella said:

“I am so pleased to have been able have been so closely consulted on this work which could change the lives of so many placement students. Placement students have an even more challenging time than most university students as they juggle their academic work alongside full-time placement in the workplace, whilst facing the potential financial and travel pressures of placements. 

“Universities need to recognise that placement students require additional support to ensure their wellbeing is looked after. As a previous nursing student, I have felt these pressures first hand and I needed more support from the university in comparison to my friends. 

“If this checklist was available whilst Harrison was on placement, I feel that he would’ve felt a lot more supported by his university, with the right policies in place to safeguard his wellbeing. Unfortunately for Harrison this wasn’t available, which makes me even more passionate about this checklist, in order to safeguard the mental wellbeing of placement students and help prevent potential student suicides.”

The new publication sets out the importance of support both before, during, and after a placement and the checklist recommends actions for universities at each stage, including:

  • Check in advance of the placement that the workplace setting has properly considered wellbeing and has clear routes for support when people need it.
  • Ensure that wellbeing is a key part of pre-placement briefings and training, such as techniques for maintaining a good work/life balance, or preparing healthcare students for potentially upsetting and traumatic situations.
  • Establish a key university contact for each student and provide students with opportunities to ‘check-in’ with that person on both a scheduled and unplanned basis if needed.
  • Similar check-ins should happen once the placement has ended, to ensure students are settling back into university life and that any support that was in place prior to their placement is continuing.
  • Work with the placement provider to set-out a clear process for unnotified or unexplained absence reporting, so it is clear how concerns for a students’ whereabouts or welfare would be escalated to the university.
  • Provide study skills workshops to help students feel more confident returning to academic life, and encourage networks for placement students to keep in-touch and support each other at this time.

Professor Brian Webster-Henderson, Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Cumbria and Chair of the roundtable which developed this work, said:

“Starting a placement is an exciting step but is also a major change in a student’s life, with new learning and development challenges, day-to-day changes in their routine and potentially a new home in a different part of the country to their networks.

“It is vital that students keep a close connection to their university while they are on placement and continue to see themselves as part of their university community. It is also important for students to remember they can access central university support services, including financial and counselling, throughout their placements.

“Universities and placement providers must work closely together to support students and ensure they are doing everything they can to reduce the risk of mental health difficulties.”

Alongside the checklist, published today, is a collection of best-practice case studies highlighting actions some universities are already taking to support placement students.

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