In the last academic year there have been at least 95 student suicides. In an effort to encourage students to be more open about their mental health, Professor Steve West, the head of mental health for Universities UK (UUK), has urged that “the university admissions process must be changed”. This plea follows discussions held at a UUK conference this September, where the opinions of parents, whose children had taken their own life whilst at university, were voiced, and suggestions on how mental health could be better managed by universities were heard.
The major proposal to come out of these discussions was that changes should be made to the current UCAS forms, whereby students no longer have to classify mental health problems under the ‘disability’ section of the form. Instead, a new section would be added where students could “declare eating disorders and any history of self-harm” prior to enrolment. It is hoped that under this new initiative, universities will be better equipped to deal with new students who may be struggling with their mental health; with the new provisions in place, it would also be hoped that the potential strain of moving into university, on students’ mental health, is lessened.
James Murray, whose son took his own life in May of this year, suggested that universities needed to do more to “destigmatise openness” about mental health in order to better the prospects of their current and incoming students. This new proposal hopes to combat the issue of openness about mental health. However, Professor Hugh Brady, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, has warned that “students would need to be reassured, they would need to be confident, that it would not in any way compromise their application”.
In addition to this, Mr Murray has suggested that “a lot of work could be done by UCAS” to improve the way in which, and the confidence with which, students declare their mental health status on the form. The director of external affairs at UCAS, Helen Thorne, has said that currently any information provided is “is passed on to their chosen course-providers as part of the application form, so universities and colleges can begin to think about what support can be provided”.
Head of UEA’s Student Support Service Dr. Jon Sharp stated that the proposals should be welcomed “in principle.” However, he raised concerns regarding the security of this system, suggesting that “the messaging around such a scheme will need to be very carefully handled.”
Whilst these changes are being made, universities are continuing to work hard to combat mental health issues at their institutions: the University of Bristol is holding a mental health and wellbeing fayre during its Welcome Week; and UEA is running wellbeing workshops throughout the first semester. It is hoped that a combination of approaches will be taken-up by universities to help the overall mental wellbeing of students around the UK.