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Time to reach out

4 October 2020

Student wellbeing has been national news over the last few weeks. Much of this has been about their movements in and around their community, their ability to go home and their Covid-19 status. These are valid concerns, but universities, students’ unions and accommodation providers also know that October and November are peak times for mental wellbeing issues to arise. With fewer of the usual touchpoints, will student distress be picked up unless they themselves come forward?

It is a good question to ask. Last year, in partnership with HEPI, we delved into the way in which first year students access support services at their university and the results were surprising at the time. Given where we are, they may now help us identify students who may be less likely to reach out for help when they need it.

Just over a quarter of students had used some kind of university support or wellbeing service by the end of their first year of study. Those who had used these services had generally rated them highly in terms of their quality and usefulness.

But we were also interested in those who hadn’t used the services. The most obvious assumption was that they didn’t use them because they didn’t need them, but based on some of our previous findings we wanted to be sure, so we asked the question.

Of those who had not used a university support, wellbeing or mental health service, only 49% said that it was because they didn’t need to. Almost a third said they had all the support they needed from elsewhere and a quarter that their problem wasn’t big enough.

Then came a number of reasons that were more concerning, with each polling at a rate of between 1 in 7 and 1 in 8:

  • I was too anxious or afraid
  • I didn’t feel comfortable with the university knowing
  • I didn’t think it was for people like me

Students could select more than one answer, and in total about a third of students who hadn’t used one of the services chose one or more of these answers – that’s just over a quarter of all first year students.

In other words, we can’t assume that students who have a wellbeing or mental health concern will contact their university for help.

What’s more, there are some groups of students seem to be more at risk of excluding themselves from accessing university support. These include students with an existing disability or mental health condition, international students and students who are estranged from their parents. LGBT+ students were twice as likely as non-LGBT+ students to say they were too anxious or afraid to seek help.

This is going to be a difficult academic year for everyone and we know we have to look out for one another. Proactively checking in with new students is important and many of us are doing it, especially for those who are self-isolating. However it’s also important to destigmatise seeking help, and to provide reassurances about quality, confidentiality and anything else that students may be concerned about. That way we can help make sure that the most vulnerable students don’t slip through the net.