~ Dr Nicola Byrom, Student Minds Founding Director
I can remember moving to Nottingham as an undergraduate student. It was an exciting time, but it was also a nerve-wracking time. The move provided an enormous opportunity: a new beginning with new peers in a new city. That opportunity came with a pressure to make the most of it. This is a transition that thousands of young adults make every year and it is not an easy one. Today almost 50% of UK young adults enter higher education and 80% of them move away from home to do so. This move offers these amazing new opportunities, but means leaving behind all existing support networks.
A proportion of students will be experiencing mental health problems when they move to university and may be receiving support from mental health services. Despite being national our NHS cannot cope with an individual living in one area of the country and receiving support from a service in a different area of the country. Though there are fantastic examples of what can be achieved using modern technology (e.g. SHaRON in Berkshire), for the majority of students, as they register with a new GP in their university city, their support will need to be provided by a new mental health service in the new city.
The transition to university isn’t easy and so it would seem to be a time in a young adult’s life when they could really do with as much support as possible. When the care system in our country works, young adults experiencing mental health problems receive the support they need as they make this transition. Home mental health services can contact mental health services in the university town to formally hand over care and ensure that a care plan is in place so that continuity of care is achieved. This doesn’t always happen. I have heard so many stories of students who have been discharged from mental health services at home shortly before making the move to university, who are left struggling to get support at university. In worst case scenarios it can take the better part of an academic year before a student is able to be seen by the mental health services, by which stage the difficulties of transitioning to university are well past and a student will either have begun to settle into university or have dropped out.
I believe it is completely unacceptable for students to be systematically let down by health services at such a crucial time in their lives. At Student Minds we have been looking into this problem for some time now, trying to understand exactly why this gap in care arises. This research has been written up into our Transitions Report. We can identify two factors; it is often quite difficult for home mental health services to find and make contact with university mental health services and the mental health services in a university town may not be aware of the needs of students in their area. On the 24th of February 2014, we launched a petition calling on the Department of Health to ensure that mental health services meet the specific needs of students.
On the 13th of March I was able to meet with the government care minister, Norman Lamb, to discuss the needs of students. We asked Mr Lamb what could be done to ensure that mental health services had specific guidance about the needs of students. Today, services across the country are commissioned locally by Clinical Commissioning Groups, CCGs. While NHS England provides guidance to CCGs about the needs of many community and patient groups to help them commission appropriate services, no such guidance exists for students.
Our meeting with Norman Lamb felt very successful. Mr Lamb agreed to have brief put together by the end of April about the possible options for improving care delivered to students. We also set the wheels in motion for a meeting with NHS England to ask for this specific guidance to be written on the needs of students. While I’m optimistic about the possibility that improvements will be made for the provision of mental health services for students, we are continuing to call for support from students across the country. The challenges for student mental health provision have been raised before; this is not a new complaint! Though many professional organisations have discussed the challenges students face when transitioning to university many times, real improvements have not materialised.
Students need to get behind this call for mental health services that meet their needs. Today it is estimated that around 28% of students are experiencing clinically significant levels of psychological distress, but if students remain silent about limited services, services will never be tailored to their needs.
If you agree that students with mental health problems should be able to access support as they transition to university, please get behind our campaign. You can sign our petition at www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/doh-address-the-gap-in-student-mental-health-support. But please don’t stop there. Ask your friends, family and peers to sign the petition; your involvement can turn one signature into many. You can find out how to get more involved in this campaign on our website at www.studentminds.org.uk/transitions-campaign or by emailing email@example.com.