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Many new and returning students are moving away from home, their networks of friends and having to adopt to the cultural shock of a new area of a country. This does have a huge negative effect on students’ mental health. Further student debt, academic and financial pressure as well as the uncertainty of the new environment produce even more challenges. These can be tough to adapt to as a person’s well being has a large impact on their success in work, study and life.
An NUS Survey found last year less than half of students have sought support for mental health issues. The main reasonings suggested for this are:
- 33% were not aware of where to go get support
- 40% were nervous about getting help
Further, on average 33% had suicidal thoughts; double the amount when compared to the general population. This figure rose to 55% for LGBTQ students. If this isn’t alarming enough, the leading cause of death for men and women in their early twenties is suicides.
University exposure to drink and drugs further exacerbated mental health difficulties for individuals.
Universities need more strength to prioritise mental health and tackle the following figures:
- 87% students struggle academically
- 44% of students feel isolated
- 36% struggle financially
- 22% struggle with living independently
- approximately 75% of 24 year olds have an established diagnosable issue.
- 66% of academics’ mental health related issues (stress/ depression/ burnout) are due to work
- 7 working days are lost per year due to mental health issues
Academics often feel isolated and unsupported. Many feel they are unable to disclose information to their employers due to lack of awareness.
A university with healthy staff and students creates a more productive, high-achieving and reputable environment. In this article, we consider the legal frameworks that exist to protect the mental health of students on campus.
The law of tort and student rights
Universities owe a duty of care to all university students. This can be met through the provision of pastoral support protecting the health, safety and well-being of students.
These mental health duties for university students lack testing in the courts and depend on the facts of the case. However, if a university has failed to meet its duty to students, this could lead to internal complaints and claims in negligence. A court would need to decide whether it is fair and reasonable to impose a duty within a proximate relationship between the university and affected student/students. This standard of care should be judged on an ordinary and competent institution. Therefore the judgements of tutors, student support teams and counsellors must be judged by an ordinary skilled individual exercising that skill. This standard may be higher if they were a trained healthcare professional. The greater the support the university provides, the higher the duty owed and greater potential risk of negligence if that support is undelivered.
Students with diagnosed or declared mental health issues at university must have prepared trained staff who understand their responsibilities to help students with mental health difficulties.
All relationships between a university and students are governed by contracts. Student contracts are subject to consumer laws and regulated by the CMA (competition marketing authority). The CMA provides guidance to universities calling for any terms to be accessible, clear and transparent for all parties to understand their rights and obligations.
If a university breaches these terms through failure to deliver these services or not delivering to a satisfactory standard it risks student complaint; or even a possible court claim for breach of contract, through misrepresentation or breaching the Consumer Rights Act 2015.
Contracts impact any consideration of a university’s obligation to students requiring mental health support. The contract is expected to cover academic and pastoral services, counselling and mental health support.
Ensuring equal treatment
Under the Equality Act 2010, universities cannot unlawfully discriminate against applicants or students on the grounds of a protected characteristic and under the acts this includes mental health. Universities need to make reasonable adjustments to avoid students with protected characteristics being treated less favourably. Universities as a public body are under a duty to eliminate discrimination when exercising its functions. However, the phrase reasonable adjustment is broad and lacking definition in law and left to be determined by courts. Examples of adjustments could be via study plans that factor in mental health needs.
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 emphasises that the university has a duty to make reasonable steps to ensure students and staff are safe; including their mental health and well being. Breaching this could lead to civil or criminal liability. Sufficient policies and procedures must be in place to manage and support students with mental health difficulties. Key examples include following the government advice on prevention of student suicide risk on campuses in the future.
Under the Data Protection Act and GDPR, a student’s confidentiality and privacy is protected by specific rules governing the use and disclosure of personal data, including data about mental health. This is a controversial area and it has been suggested that institutions should lawfully disclose mental health data of high risk students to parents or other trusted persons. Sam Gyimah, the former Universities Minister has suggested students should have a right to opt in to allowing data concerning mental health to be shared with those individuals.
Coroners and Justice Act 2009
If an unexplained student suicide occurs on campus, the local coroner will investigate along with police evidential support. A university may provide evidence and personnel to be called as a witness. They can make formal recommendations to prevent future deaths which may have implications for the institution.
Human Rights Act 1998
This covers all fundamental freedoms under the European Convention on Human Rights in UK law. This includes art 2 right to life, art 8 right to privacy and family life and art 14 prohibiting discrimination.
Mental Health First Aid
Mental health first aid evolved from Australia in 2002 and aimed to address the epidemic of mental health. The fundamental aim of this is to keep students and colleagues healthy by relieving the stigmas and increasing a supportive culture. Good quality mental health training is an essential foundation to promote awareness and support for people to safely disclose their concerns.
So far, 140,000 people have been trained in 2018-19. Overall almost half a million people are qualified in the UK including personnsel in big companies such as Lloyd’s banking group, Severn Trent Water and Rolls Royce.
Student suicides are at record levels, as made most prominent by numerous university news headlines such as at Bristol university. Further, dropouts have trebled from 2009-15 by 210% and the stigma still is around those suffering. This MHFA hopes to alleviate the 78% of students who experience mental health issues in a given year by encouraging discussion. But the MHFA is limited at only being able to promote support (not advice like GP’s). It isn’t a preventative measure to resolve the crisis.
Goldman Sachs, an investment banking firm and leading graduate employer, and Mind announced a £1.5 million fund to assist universities with mental health. This mentally healthy university programme has reached 10 universities in its first two years at universities such as Bristol, Leeds Beckett and Cambridge. The programme has worked with student unions to transform mental health and support.
Anglia Ruskin trialled this scheme in February 2014. The university student counsellor trained as a qualified Mental Health First Aider and runs sessions across all three campuses. Student reps have had access funded by the Student Union. Overall, this had positive outcomes: 100% of staff recommended training to a colleague. Further, this training raised the profiling of counselling and intervened more readily with students. Students were able to easily locate trained staff for support. Kings College London also had a successful trial run tackling the stigma, expanding the funding towards mental health by £500,000 and providing more mental health advisers. This non-judgemental environment broke the taboo topic and raises awareness amongst staff and students to look after each other.
General student Advice
- Talk to someone about any troubles and concerns whether it be trusted friends or family
- Seek university counselling services
- Speak to student led services such as the students’ union
- Online self help guides such as the NHS choices moodzone on students against depression
- Therapy and counselling from a university mental health adviser
- Discuss your troubles with your GP
- Taking simple steps such as taking regular exercise and eating healthily can make a real difference to one’s mental health. There are plenty of great websites out there, such as My Fit Station, that can help with this.
- Look at charitable guides online such as mind, student minds and mhfa websites for further advice
Mental health needs to be a top priority of universities. This isn’t for negotiating: they must be compliant with the legal frameworks discussed above and responsible to allow students to thrive and reach their full potentials. This involves finance and investment for necessary counselling and support networks. This must be a strategic aim for unifying the university. There must be robust policies and procedures to deal with the impacts of mental health.