Student mental health: Universities should take charge

student mental health, mental health technology
© Panayiotis Demou

While holistic care of students requires input from multiple stakeholders, universities are uniquely placed to lead the charge on student mental health, writes Dr. Ian Jackson, medical director, and clinical safety officer at Refero

Research published in June 2018 by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and Advance HE Institute disclosed that University undergraduates are more likely to have lower levels of wellbeing than all young people aged between 20 and 24. Furthermore, the most recent ONS figures show 95 recorded student suicides for the 12 months to July 2017 in England and Wales.

Understandably, increasing pressure is being put on higher education providers to tackle this crisis. The real issue here is not a lack of support services per se, but more a question of ensuring that students have easy access to them via an interconnected network of internal and external organisations – effectively a ‘safety net’ – and that these ‘touch points’ or engagements are fully governed and auditable to ensure that students do not fall through the gaps.

Increase in demand for support services

Unfortunately, the noble goal to make higher education more widely accessible to all socio-economic groups often exposes some of the most vulnerable people in society to factors that could exacerbate mental health issues, e.g. financial stress due to rising tuition fees.

As participation has expanded, national trends in mental ill-health have materialised in student populations, causing an increase in demand for support services. Universities have reported a huge surge in demand for counselling services in recent years, with as many as one in four students either being seen or waiting to be seen by counselling services in some institutions.

While holistic care of students requires input from multiple stakeholders, universities are uniquely placed to lead the charge.

The business case for support services

So what role do higher education providers play in facilitating wider engagement with multi-organisations? Clearly, universities have a duty of care to safeguard students – many of whom are away from their family in an unfamiliar environment for the very first time – but there’s also a very real business case for tackling mental health. Students are a revenue source for universities and there is an obvious need to protect that income.

Higher education providers must be encouraged to work in close partnership with health and care organisations, local communities, parents and even employers to tackle mental health to improve student wellbeing, as well as protecting their own reputation and revenue. But aren’t universities already collaborating with other service providers?

Supporting existing ways of working

Today there are many student services, from within the university and externally, already in existence but more often than not they operate in silos – with various people and platforms for engagement, lacking any one single overlay service delivering real integration and, crucially, tracking those student journeys.

One of the most frequently asked questions by students is regarding the availability of local GP services. While many universities will provide links to primary care providers via their student enrolment facilities, there is often no further follow up or audit trail ensuring that those students have indeed enrolled or have ready access to the services they may well require throughout their student life.

Technology providing the fabric of the ‘safety net’

Technology enables new ways of engaging people and connecting them with support services, improving and building upon more traditional ways of working to eliminate the possibility of students falling through the cracks at the point where services crossover.

Students should be able to sign up to an online platform and send requests to their university ranging from “where’s the nearest bus to campus?” to “how can I get an appointment to see my GP?” But, the real value comes from the potential to connect students with GPs and/or other valuable resources digitally, providing a clear audit trail of those engagements.

But how do universities facilitate this engagement without incurring additional costs? The key is bringing the many services that fall under the umbrella of student support services together into a single consolidated platform; combined with the ability to switch elements on or off, whether from messaging and self-help, as well as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and analytics, according to need.

Universities of the future are increasingly embracing digital, but the real value comes from integrating with the wider student bodies and public services, including health and social care organisations, especially GPs.

Indeed, students have come to expect digital interaction.

Only by using technology to improve existing ways of working will we see real improvements in how student mental health is managed in the future.


Dr. Ian Jackson


Medical director and clinical safety officer




Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here