As we’ve reported before, the mental health of university students is a serious and growing issue. There are a number of reasons why today’s students are susceptible to greater levels of stress than previous generations. These range from anxieties about money and debt to pressure to stand out and outperform increasingly large cohorts of students and compete for a dwindling number of top-level jobs.

On-campus support, and how to tell what the quality and level will be at your new university

We’ve published advice on getting through university while taking the best possible care of your mental health, much of which boils down to “talk to somebody and get help.” But it’s an unfortunate reality that the availability and accessibility of professional help varies greatly from university to university. And while there’s a league table for just about everything connected with your university experience, there’s still no reliable way of ranking universities in terms of their care for student mental health.

A recent article in the Guardian reports on the difficulty of knowing how to tell whether a university is likely to take your mental health needs seriously. The article recounts one student’s experiences of attending – and having to leave – a Russell Group university with only minimal mental health support, and subsequently re-enrolling at an institution with far more substantial mental health support.

Based on that student’s experiences, the article offers a number of indicators of a good mental health support programme. These include the visibility of mental health-related resources at open days, discussions with current students at the institution, and social media discussions surrounding mental health at the university.

How much attention should I be paying to mental health support?

Choosing universities to apply to – or even choosing among the offers you’ve received – can be a daunting enough task, and of course mental health support adds another variable into the mix. You may never have experienced stress, depression, or any other mental health issue, but you could still encounter one or more of these in your first months at university, so you’d be well-advised to at least take a look and ask a couple of questions at open days.

If you’ve experienced mental health issues before, though – and especially if you currently access mental health support – you should pay close attention to how seriously a prospective university seems to take mental health.

Transitioning between care providers

Transitioning from living “at home”, usually with your parents, to living independently at university is a challenge for any young person. Navigating bank accounts, financial arrangements, living contracts, module enrolment and all the other introductory stuff you have to take care of is more than enough to handle. For many young people, putting in place the medical care they need is as simple as signing up with a GP, and in many cases, surgeries are linked to the university itself. But if you’ve got additional medical needs – including mental health needs – securing access to support services in your new town or city can be a substantial cause of stress in itself.

The problem isn’t helped by the fact that universities and the NHS don’t always agree on who is responsible for different aspects of a student’s wellbeing. There may be a long transition between a young person being able to access NHS mental health support services prior to moving to university and again having full access to them once there.

Even then, there can be additional time lags associated with the transfer of notes from previous care providers to the new ones, meaning new professionals won’t know what has and hasn’t worked in the past and may therefore be unable to make the best care decisions. In the meantime, university-based pastoral services may be required to fill the gaps. It’s vital that these services are not only available but that they’re accessible, easy to find, and there’s no lengthy wait involved in accessing them.

A joined-up solution?

A recent Universities UK report highlighted the extent of this problem, urging the development of a formal partnership between local government, NHS providers, universities, schools and colleges, to ensure the rapid transition of mental health care for university students. The call for all these stakeholders to be involved gives some indication of just how many organisations can be involved in the delivery of mental health provision, and the complexity of moving services between one locale and another. The joined-up model the report envisions would undoubtedly help streamline this process, but any implementation of this is likely years away.

If you’re starting university in September and are concerned about the transition of your mental health support services to your new location, you may be able to help by contacting the professionals you currently see and asking them for copies of your notes, and for a letter you can give to your new doctor outlining the services you need.