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English universities call for mental health funding as online platform struggles to make an impact

Universities in England are calling for more funding for student mental health services as figures for a new online support platform have revealed little uptake.

While the primary focus of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed with high patient admissions, concerns have also steadily grown of an upcoming 'mental health crisis' caused by a spike in mental health issues and a lack of mental health support services across the country.

University students in particular are thought to have been heavily impacted by the pandemic due to their isolation from friends and family.

In fact, a recent poll found that more than 50% of students have experienced a deterioration in their mental health in 2020, with 1 in 5 stating their mental health was 'much worse now'.

Anticipating the potential negative effects the pandemic would have on university populations, the Office for Students announced a new online platform, Student Space, in June of this year.

The £3 million software intends to support students in England and Wales who are struggling with their mental health, providing access to dedicated mental health counselling through phone or text, guided cognitive behavioural therapy, and information to help find support available at specific universities.

Despite the platform's good intent, uptake figures from between August and December show that just 398 students have used the service – a tiny fraction of the roughly 1.7 million university students across England and Wales, and the estimated 25,000 students who accessed support via their university.

Speaking to The Guardian, Levi Pay, a higher education consultant who reviews mental health services, called the uptakes numbers "pretty dismal" and calls for the bolstering of "services students are already turning to, rather than creating a new service from scratch."

In response to the poor uptake numbers, universities in England are calling for more investment in student support services, in line with the new funding packages announced by both Scottish and Welsh governments.

“My simple ask to the minister is to match the funding that institutions in the devolved administrations are receiving," said Professor Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England in Bristol, and chair of Universities UK’s mental health advisory group. "It is unfair and inequitable to disadvantage students in England in this way.”

West also highlights the complex issue of confidentiality when it comes to data sharing between Student Space and the universities themselves. Despite advocating for the usefulness of the information it provides, West is concerned with the manner in which Student Space encourages students to seek support from outside their university, making it harder for the university itself to support the process.

“At the moment it is difficult for universities if students are accessing mental health support services outside the university, as it is very difficult to share information due to confidentiality,” he says. “Even if I have a student attending hospital multiple times for poor mental health, I won’t know that unless the student tell us.”

Student Minds, the charity behind Student Space, continues to encourage students to use the service as a means of complementing existing university support: “If any student feels like they need some extra support, whether due to feeling isolated or dealing with loss, online learning or other challenges, we welcome them to access our services and resources in the way that suits them best – by text, phone, reading tips or watching videos."


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