UK’s multi-agency, multi-million dollar effort to tackle student mental health

SOURCE: Nikko Macaspac/Unsplash
For students suffering from mental health problems, help is on the way.

By U2B Staff 

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Once a stigma-ridden topic, mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Attitudes towards the illness have shifted, with more work and research being put into tempering its prevalence around the world.

Granted, there isn’t by any stretch a global mental health epidemic. We must remember that data on incidence rates are still patchy, heavily reliant on sufferers acknowledging their conditions and then daring to self-report. Any increase in reporting numbers may not necessarily be reflective of an actual rise in incidence rates – with mental health finally entering national policy and public discourse, it’s to be expected that more sufferers would dare to speak out.

But still, what cannot be denied is that mental health remains a very real, very global problem. By official estimates, nearly one in five people in US live with a mental illness. In the UK, one in four will experience a mental health problem each year.

Globally, the numbers are similar and growing, with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s Global Burden of Disease reporting that about 13 percent of the global population – some 971 million people – suffer from some kind of mental disorder.

Teens and youths most at risk

The leading causes of a mental health condition vary but data suggests that teenagers and youths are particularly susceptible.

A crucial period for the development and maintenance of social and emotional habits, it is during adolescence when the mental health and well-being of an individual are most vulnerable.

What exacerbates this is the lack of awareness of the potential risks of prolonged illness such as severe depression, which could lead to suicide if left untreated. 

Panic attack
If left untreated, mental health problems could lead to severe depression and even suicide. Source: Shutterstock

The World Health Organisation says globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents. Suicide, meanwhile, is the third leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency said in 2017-18, 3.5 percent of first-year, full-time undergraduate students had a declared mental health condition, a 1.4 percent increase from figures reported in 2013-14.

Impact on student performance

The numbers also show how the illness impacts these students academic performance, with many students dropping out of their second year of study as a result of it.

A larger portion (73.3 percent) of those with no known disability go on to enter post-graduate study or higher level employment than those with a declared condition (69.2 percent).

“Whenever I talk to students, improving mental health support is consistently raised as a priority,” Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of England’s Office for Students (OfS), says.

“Universities and colleges are responding to the problem, but in too many cases students are having their experience of higher education blighted by mental ill-health.

“For many of these students, there is much more that we can do. Taking preventative action to promote good mental health is critical, as is taking a whole institution approach and involving students in developing solutions,” she adds.

This is why colleges and universities have been urged to step up to the plate to help these early sufferers, first to provide an environment that destigmatises mental health issues, and second, to look into ways to mitigate the problem.


To advance their efforts, the OfS on Wednesday revealed the details of a £14.5 million funding scheme that aims to “combat a sharp rise in student mental health issues and spark a step-change in student support across the country.”

The higher education regulatory body says it has awarded £6 million, with co-funding of £8.5 million, to 10 large-scale collaborative projects aimed at tackling mental health problems among students in the UK. These involve some 67 different universities, colleges and other organisations – including the NHS, police and charities – across the country, representing a massive multi-agency effort to arrest the issue.

The ‘Early Alert Tool’

One such project is being led by Northumbria University, in partnership with nine other organisations. These include Universities UK, Buckinghamshire New University, University of East London, Microsoft Education, Civitas Learning International, The Student Room Group, Jisc Technology, Papyrus and Bristol University.

The three-year project is to design and pilot an “Early Alert Tool” capable of identifying a student in distress to offer the necessary help. This will involve trawling the social media profiles of students and monitoring the conversations they have with staff members as well as the information held by their accommodation provider.

It is hoped the project would lead to the reduction of student suicide rates in the UK. According to the OfS, only one in three people who die by suicide are known to mental health services.

If successful, the tool will be rolled out for use at all British institutions.

“We know students use social media, they engage with one another, they use it in a variety of different forms,” Professor Peter Francis, deputy vice-Chancellor of Northumbria, was quoted saying in The Telegraph.

“We are asking the questions – to what extent might that data provide some information to identify student profiles? This builds on what we have been doing. What other traces or types of data might we start to identify as being relevant?”

Some students with mental health problems decide to drop out of college early. Source: Shutterstock

Of course, noble as the research objective is, its methods have already raised concerns over data privacy.

Prof Francis, however, gave the assurance that the project would be entirely data protection compliant and that students would have to opt-in for participation. He said the project would explore the types of student data that can be analysed, including “through conversations with individuals that might be collected but not shared, not bought together and reviewed centrally in a coordinated way”.

The university currently already analyses student data to identify and mental health flags, such as grade patterns, class attendance, library use as well as how often students use virtual learning environments. The new funding will allow them to develop and test these new data points for a more accurate picture.


Other projects

According to the OfS, bids were considered from 48 lead institutions, with 10 projects successfully awarded funding. The 10 take diverse approaches to tackling student mental health issues on three levels: transitions, early interventions and improving support.

The projects are collaborative, involving a range of partners from other higher education providers, NHS services, the police, and mental health charities.

Apart from Northumbria, other projects to receive OfS funding include the following:

  • the University of the West of England, Bristol, is leading a project to understand and advance the impact of partnership working between higher education and the NHS at both a regional and national level to improve mental health support for students;
  • work led by the University of Lincoln will focus on supporting students through the transition from school to university
  • the University of Nottingham is addressing the specific mental health needs of international students
  • Keele University is developing a ‘whole community’ approach to mental health and wellbeing for students by developing links with local authorities, police and NHS providers.

Grants were also awarded to projects led by:

  • Newcastle University
  • University of Derby
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Sussex.

“The OfS is funding these new and innovative projects in universities and colleges across the country in order to incentivise the change that is needed.

“We will be reviewing the progress of each project through a comprehensive evaluation strategy to understand effective practice, and will be sharing the outcomes widely so that students everywhere can benefit from the work being done,” says Dandridge.

Details of each project are available here.