Taking the lead on student mental health – VC
18 July 2023
Students and their families deserve reassurance that their mental health is a priority when they go to university, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading has said.
In a letter to Robert Halfon, Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Professor Robert Van de Noort, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, has laid out a broad overview of how Reading plans to ensure that the mental health and welfare of students is prioritised and supported.
You can read the full text of the letter below.
Thank you for your letter of 5 June on the subject of mental health in higher education. In it, you outlined the Government’s expectations of universities on mental health, and your response to calls by the LEARN Network and others to introduce a statutory duty of care on universities in respect of their students.
I am grateful to you and others for raising this issue at the highest levels. I agree that this is an issue that requires leadership and ownership by universities at all levels, including at executive and leadership level. To succeed, we must work in collaboration with our own professional experts, and partners in the NHS, charities and elsewhere.
We agree with your assessment that introducing a legal duty of care is not the right way to facilitate the adoption of good practice across the sector. However, we fully understand and support many of the LEARN Network’s aims and proposed actions.
I am immensely grateful to members of families affected by issues of mental health or suicide, for committing so much energy and determination to ensure the best for students. I believe that it is vital that we listen to and engage with our students and the families of students wherever possible in responding to these challenges.
In a nationwide environment in which the need for additional mental health support has increased, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, it is vital that institutions work together and put the interests of their communities first.
For universities, this means putting the interests of our students and colleagues at the heart of what we do. This is a value that we have further strengthened in recent years at Reading, as the fundamental principle of our University Strategy. And while the evidence shows that young people who attend university are less likely to experience and better placed to handle mental health challenges than those of the same age group in the wider population, I accept that we can and should make continuous improvements to our practices and processes for those that do require help. I will outline some of these below.
Best practice on mental health
At Reading, we wholeheartedly support the continued adoption of a whole institution approach to student health and wellbeing. Among other innovations that we have recently implemented, or are working to implement, we are:
- reviewing how academic attendance and performance issues are communicated and monitored;
- ensuring that fitness to study or fitness to practise procedures focus on supporting our students to remain at university wherever possible;
- improving training for all academic and professional services colleagues to help identify and raise concerns about a student’s welfare;
- improving training for staff on implementing 'reasonable adjustments' for students, in keeping with best practice;
- improving referral pathways between universities and the NHS, and learning from good practice that already exists in the sector;
- implementing key Universities UK guidance, for example on sharing information with trusted contacts, and postvention approaches, including conducting detailed reviews where a death is a suspected suicide.
University Mental Health Charter
As part of our commitment to enhance our whole institution approach to mental health we have already registered for the University Mental Health Charter. We have spent the last 12 months carrying out a robust self-assessment, using the Charter process as guidance.
Among the procedures we have strengthened or recently introduced as a result, I would highlight the following areas:
Emergency contacts: We ask students for a trusted emergency contact person, as distinct from their formal ‘next of kin’, as part of the annual enrolment process. We use this to make contact with a student’s nominated person where we feel that the risks known to us warrant this. We consider this a serious step – and we are mindful that it can carry risk in itself – so any decision to contact a trusted person can only be made by a senior member of the University wellbeing team.
NHS partners: We have strong partnerships with the NHS, including a formal contract with our local GP practice for an on-duty doctor, and psychiatric assessment for students we identify as in immediate need. We also liaise closely with our local NHS Crisis team, keeping them regularly informed of students who we are treating as high risk.
Information to students: We are constantly enhancing the support provided directly to students, for example, by creating a ‘Looking after yourself at University’ guide, creating a wellness checker – identified as ‘excellent’ in our recent Mental Health Charter assessment visit; running a regular Life Tools Series of workshop webinars; and providing comprehensive guidance on support inside and outside the university for a range of issues. We already provide 24-hour, year-round support for students living in Halls of residence, including with an emergency telephone hotline; and in 2023/24 we will be expanding this by introducing a 24-hour helpline for all students, including those living off campus or at home.
Staff support: As part of our ‘whole university’ approach, we have enhanced our guidance for all staff in the University, recognising that it is not only academic colleagues who may observe students who are struggling. We have produced a straightforward and accessible guide for staff on what to do if they are concerned about a student. We have also provided ‘first responder’ guidance, helping them to recognise and act to disclosures about student mental health concerns. This supports staff to immediately respond in a confident, compassionate and informed manner, as well as referring the student to more specialist support teams and resources.
Student engagement analytics: We utilise a toolkit for monitoring student academic engagement, which includes coursework submission and attendance at lectures and other teaching engagements. In the last full academic year 2021/22, this led us to carry out interventions with more than 400 students. Suicide prevention and postvention: We have implemented a framework that guides our response to every student death. This has been informed by sector best practice guidance, including from Universities UK and the Samaritans. It includes providing specific support for students and colleagues who are close to the person who has died, as well as the broader student population. It also provides a framework to ensure prioritisation of the needs of the family, and guidelines on communications strategies with our community, with a clear focus on the needs of the family and our community, above other considerations. We have also instituted a process of review and investigation following any death of a student.
With regard to all of the above, I am immensely grateful to the hard work of a dedicated group of colleagues and students who have spearheaded many of these changes and deliver a large amount of the University’s services to support student welfare and wellbeing.
As ever, the true value of any community, universities included, is in the strength of its people and our collective willingness to look after each other, especially when times are difficult. I am proud that every day the University of Reading community uses its combined strengths to help people, in what we do in research and education, and in how we do it.
Thank you for prioritising this issue at the heart of Government.
Professor Robert Van de Noort