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Student mental wellbeing in Higher Education

Universities UK commissioned the Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Working Group to produce an updated guidance aimed at senior leaders and…

Universities UK commissioned the Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Working Group to produce an updated guidance aimed at senior leaders and managers to ensure the provision of adequate support to students who may experience mental health difficulties during their time in higher education.

The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) provides statistics and data about students and staff members that have declared themselves to be suffering from mental health conditions. However, it must be noted that the statistics solely report those who have voluntarily declared their condition upon admission or start of employment.

What are the policies across the UK?

The policies across the UK vary and approaches are under constant review.


The "No Health without Mental Health. A Cross-Government Mental Health Outcomes Strategy for People of All Ages" demonstrated the government’s initiatives to work with the community to support and improve mental wellbeing. The Department of Health, in the publication "Closing the Gap" integrated mental and physical care under mental health services and gave instructions as to the manner to improve the quality of life of those suffering from mental health issues. Furthermore, the Children and Families Act 2014 is relevant to HE as it connects health, education and social care for people up to the age of 25.


The Scottish government published guidance in 2012 to set out initiatives and commitments toward the enhancement of mental health services. In 2013, the Scottish government ran an anti-stigma campaign raising awareness and challenging discrimination against people suffering from mental health conditions.


Legislative directives published in Wales have established a ten-year-strategy to address recovery and improve mental health services. Furthermore, there is a statutory duty, under the Mental Health (Wales) Measure 2010, placed on health Board and Local Authorities to improve support and access to services for people with mental ill health.

Northern Ireland

In 2014, a strategic framework has been designed to greatly enhance health policies and actions and reduce inequalities due to mental health condition.

Development specific to HE since 2000

In the last 15 years, a number of papers have been published to address mental health issues in the HE sector. These publications have increased awareness among students and members of staff and have created interests as mental health has become a focus for doctoral research. In addition, organisations have been established to promote wellbeing in HE through seminars, conferences and publications etc. Some of these organisations are:

  • AMOSSHE, The Student Services Organisation
  • British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy
  • Equality Challenge Unit
  • Universities and Colleges Division
  • Heads of University Counselling Services
  • Higher Education Academy
  • Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Working Group
  • National Association of Disability Practitioners
  • National Union of Students
  • Student Health Association
  • University Mental Health Advisers Network

Recently, a concept of the "healthy university" has emerged with the initiative of the University of Central Lancashire to analyse interrelated factors that can affect mental health and to examine the possibilities of remedies for such conditions. This work has driven other institutions to conduct similar analyses and eventually led to the creation of Healthy Universities Networkwhich is composed of 45 HE institutions.

Students also play an important role in promoting wellbeing through student-led activities or initiatives developed with students. Some examples are:

  • Nightline
  • Student Minds
  • Mental Wealth UK
  • The Alliance for Student-Led Wellbeing

The National Union of Students (NUS) is also involved in facilitating support and in conducting anti-stigma campaigns.

However, universities are facing new challenges that may affect students with mental health issues. The HE sector has become a consumer-driven market where the student experience is a significant criterion. Alongside with quality teaching and learning, it is expected that students have a good social and living environment which includes a focus on good student wellbeing.

Moreover, HE institutions have a duty to ensure that students following treatment for mental health conditions are able to access courses and teaching and are not disadvantaged in comparison with other students.

To face these new challenges, the HE sector is continuously improving the support offered to students as well as promoting student wellbeing. Surveys show that the number of universities that have implemented formal mental health policies has increased from 26% to 54% between 2003 and 2008. In 2006, the UUK/GuildHE Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education Group published a framework for an institutional mental health policy that highlighted mental health issues that need to be addressed by HE providers. A number of universities have also established key policies to deal with situations where mental issues would severely interfere with the student’s ability to study. These policies are:

  • Fitness to study
  • Fitness to practice
  • Mitigating circumstances
  • Fit to sit
  • Crisis intervention
  • Returning to study

Legal implications in England and Wales

It is now accepted that there is a student contract between the student and the HE provider which triggers a number of rights for students under consumer protection law.

Regarding negligence, it can be broadly stated that HE institutions have a common law duty of care in delivering their services to the standard of the ordinarily competent institution and to act reasonably to protect the health, safety and welfare of students.

Concerning the management of students with mental health difficulties, universities have statutory obligations under Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, Coroner’s and Justice Act 2009, Equality Act 2010, Human Rights Act 1998, Data Protection Act 1998 and Confidentiality.

In cases where students are dissatisfied with their experience at universities, they are entitled to bring complaints via the internal complaint scheme of the HE provider or via external bodies such as the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for HE, The Quality Agency and the courts through the process of judicial review or breach of contract/negligence claims.


Many institutions provide internal services to promote student wellbeing and to support students facing small or severe mental health difficulties. There is a wide range of services available from pastoral to psychiatrics consultancy. It is also important that students’ attention is drawn to the existence of such services. Some universities have achieved so by creating "one stop shop" which regroups all the different services available. However, students can also seek help with external agencies such as local mental health services, telephone helplines, websites and e-mail groups.

In conclusion, it is paramount that HE providers have policies in place to support students with mental health conditions and to promote wellbeing. Accordingly, policies should be enforced, regularly updated and members of staff should be adequately trained to be efficiently responsive to any issues or enquiries.

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