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Friday, 22 October 2021
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Report: Students want universities to improve mental health support

A new report published today by charity Mental Health Innovations (MHI), which powers the UK’s only 24/7 text message support service, Shout 85258, reveals that 6 in 10 university students who texted Shout this summer are anxious about the 2021/22 academic year, with loneliness (74%), relationships (72%) and workload (65%) their main concerns.  

Half of these students are also worried about finances (52%), while more than a quarter are apprehensive about possible future restrictions (30%) and disruption to in-person teaching (27%) as a result of Covid-19, despite the majority of restrictions being lifted and many universities set to largely resume face-to-face teaching and social activities this term.

Amid widespread reports of declining mental health and wellbeing for students due to the pandemic and increasing demand for already overstretched mental health services, the majority of students surveyed expressed a desire for their university to provide more and better mental health support to meet their needs. The greatest demand was for the provision of text message mental health support (75%), surpassing demand for face-to-face (72%), webchat (47%) and phone (43%) support.

MHI’s report aims to help university leaders and policymakers understand students’ mental health needs in real-time, get ahead of these issues at the start of the new academic year and target resources where they are needed most.

So far in 2021, Shout 85258 has taken 78,000 conversations with 27,600 students who have texted the service for immediate support with their mental health. An analysis of 12,100 of these conversations with 3,956 students revealed that the main issues students are concerned with are anxiety (40%), depression (33%) and suicide (28%), followed by relationships (25%), loneliness (17%), self-harm (12%) and Covid-19 (6%).

There is a clear demand for round-the-clock mental health services for students, as 75% of students contacted Shout outside of the hours of 9am-5pm, with the majority seeking support between 10pm-12am (20%). To ensure Shout can provide unbroken 24/7 support, MHI has trained 2,800 active volunteers in the UK and New Zealand.

Insight from Shout Clinicians and Volunteers, alongside feedback from student texters, indicates that the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the challenges students already face at university – including moving away from home for the first time, the pressures of studying and exams, managing personal finances and making new friends. These interlinking complexities have caused many students to feel overwhelmed and in need of support, and have compounded underlying anxieties and mental health problems.

Victoria Hornby, CEO of Mental Health Innovations which powers Shout 85258, said: 

“Large numbers of students are coming to Shout around the clock, seven days a week for support with a range of mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and loneliness. This puts us in a unique position to be able to inform university leaders and policymakers about the challenges students are facing in real-time and the services students need right now to better support their mental health. Scaling up digital mental health services will be key to providing students with the mental health support they need, when they need it, enabling them to flourish at university and beyond. We must ensure that no student falls through the cracks.”

Thanks to the Office for Students (OfS) and Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), whose funding via the Student Space programme, run by charity Student Minds, has enabled Shout to increase its reach to students during the pandemic by collaborating with key organisations to provide students with a range of holistic support.

Ben Leatham, Student Space Programme Manager, Student Minds, said:

“The findings in this report demonstrate the vital role Shout plays in ensuring that students across the UK get the mental health support they need. With funding from OfS and HEFCW, Student Minds has been delighted to support Shout to expand its service for students during the pandemic as part of the Student Space programme, and we look forward to continuing to work with them across the remainder of 2021.”

Dr Dominique Thompson, award-winning GP, young people’s mental health expert and author of How to Grow a Grown-Up (Vermilion) said:

“Looking ahead, the main challenges for students seem to be focused on what they have missed in terms of academic work, the loss of social skills as a consequence of isolation, the absence of their usual teen life experiences and milestones around leaving school, and worries about what the future holds for them. As a society, we now have an opportunity to proactively support this generation and close some of those academic and social skills gaps by listening to students, hearing their concerns, and working with them to create solutions that will overcome some of the setbacks and mental health difficulties of the last couple of years. They need us and we must not let our students down.”

Ben West, student mental health campaigner who lost his brother to suicide, said:

“We must make it a priority to learn from the pandemic and focus on creating innovative ways of providing students with both the support to allow them to thrive in their studies but also mechanisms to better identify, intervene and support those who are at risk of harm. No doubt the year ahead will have its own challenges. We must make student mental health and prevention of student suicide a priority above all else and use research to fuel evidence-backed innovation that aids student mental health.”

Dr Radha Modgil, NHS GP, broadcaster and campaigner for wellbeing, said:

“If you’re a student and you’re feeling overwhelmed or low, know that you are not alone and that you more than deserve support. It can be a scary thing to do, but the first step is telling someone how you feel. Try talking to a close friend, someone in your family, your GP or someone in confidence who is trained to help, like a Shout Volunteer. Taking this first step will enable you to start making sense of how you are feeling and help you to understand about the kind of support that can help. You’re all incredible, you’re all doing an amazing job and you’ve all come through so many challenges already. Keep supporting each other this year and remember that help, any time of the day or night, is only a text message away.”

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