Mental healthcare in decline in UK universities, comes under fire
A recent survey shows how participants criticized UK universities for not contacting them when their children were struggling with their mental health.
According to a recent poll, some students are only allowed six counseling appointments throughout their degree, while others who need assistance with their mental health may have to wait an entire academic year.
Participating parents in the poll criticized UK institutions for neglecting to contact them when their children were having mental health issues. Others claimed that when they contacted the institution where their child was enrolled to voice their concerns, nothing was done.
Some alleged that service providers did nothing even when a student skipped every class for the whole term.
While one parent, whose son had stopped attending, said, "We did not know anything was a problem until our son sent us a message indicating that he did not want to live," another said his son "did not attend lectures for a whole term due to mental health issues and no one noticed or cared."
Parents and other survey respondents were concerned about the degree of care provided to students for their mental health at universities, which varied greatly throughout the sector and was dubbed "woeful" by one.
According to one university worker, students can wait a whole year to be seen and supported, and "the burden of care is often left with personal tutors in the department." Others may have to wait a long time for counseling because they are only entitled to six sessions during the duration of their degree.
"My son’s experience was very poor, despite a history of mental health struggles and a SEND [special educational needs and disability] diagnosis, he was not supported sufficiently. No attempt was ever made to reach out to him,” one parent said.
The Commons petition committee conducted the survey, which received 1,500 responses, ahead of a Monday discussion in which MPs will address a petition requesting the establishment of a legal duty of care from higher education providers toward students.
It comes after extensive coverage of many student suicides that occurred in previous years. The petition, which has more than 128,000 signatures, was distributed among the signatories to the survey.
"No general statutory duty of care exists in HE [higher education]. Yet, a duty of care is owed to students, and the government should legislate for this. HE providers should know what their duty is. Students must know what they can expect. Parents expect their children to be safe at university," it stated.
In response to the petition, the government stated that additional legislation to establish a statutory duty of care would be "disproportionate" given that higher education providers already have a general duty of care not to hurt their students by their own conduct.
Parents who were part of the survey did not agree.
"Duty of care exists in all areas of work and apprenticeships but not for vulnerable young adults," said one, adding that the lack of duty of care in higher education is a "serious omission in the UK legislation that needs to be rectified. We need a level playing field. Students should have the same right to duty of care as everyone else."
Another one said, "It is not enough for universities to be advised on what they should do. A statutory duty of care is a bare minimum for such large businesses. There are more regulations in place for shelf stackers than there are for students at university."
Robert Abrahart, whose daughter killed herself in 2018 while being a Bristol University student, said the present system is a lawless wild west. "And, given no relevant legal responsibility, there can be no accountability when things go badly wrong," he added, confirming that most providers "could design and implement safer processes and procedures. But they won’t, because they don’t want to, and don’t have to – so something needs to be changed. The proposed duty would establish a minimum standard of professional behaviour – requiring all members of staff to do what might reasonably be expected."
Only 1% of the survey respondents stated their school was "very supportive" of their mental health.
One student complained that the systems for accessing mental health support "are complex and not fit for purpose for those in crisis or suffering poor mental health. Please make it easy – a 24-hour support line. Don’t fob us off with text lines and the Samaritans’ line."
Prof Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England Bristol and president of Universities UK, which represents 140 providers said, "Record numbers of children and young adults are now experiencing poor mental health and this is reflected in growing student need," adding that even though "universities are investing in student support and developing partnerships with NHS services, their primary role is as settings for adult learning not health care."
"We do not believe the proposed additional statutory duty of care, beyond the existing duties that already apply to universities, would be practical, proportionate, or the best approach to supporting students," he added, mentioning that they continue to work with "the government, and its student support champion, Prof Edward Peck, on proposals to improve outcomes for students."