‘There’s a barrier to receiving help’: Campaigners call for more support for student mental health services

Natasha Abrahart

Campaigners have said there is still a long way to go to support young people and prevent suicides after the government announced further funding for student mental health services.

The Student Minds mental healthy charity has received a three-year funding commitment of £262,500 annually from the Office for Students and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, to extend the provision of Student Space.

The platform offers students one-to-one mental health support as well as services via web, call and text.

The funding comes after the government allocated £3m to help the NHS work more closely with universities when providing students with mental health support.

However, campaigners have said there is a long way to go when it comes to providing students with the best possible mental health provisions.

Mental health activist Ben West told Sky News: “So many students I talk to don’t know what’s available, and even if they know what’s available they’re so mysteriously presented that, that there’s so much anxiety about going.

“That is such a barrier to receiving that help.”

He added that discrepancies between universities are also rife.

Mr West said: “It varies massively from university to university.

“Some universities I’ve seen and heard about are great, they’re very proactive in terms of the support they offer, and some universities are incredibly unproductive.

“We need so much more regulation and guidance from government.”

In 2018, Natasha Abrahart took her own life while in her second year at the University of Bristol.

Struggling with social anxiety, her well-being deteriorated as she faced increasing pressure around oral university assessments.

Her department was made aware of her situation.

Robert Abrahart, her father, told Sky News about how Natasha’s flatmate had written to staff about the fact the student had been having suicidal thoughts “and to some degree attempted it”.

He said: “At that point, you’d think people would pick up on it and do something.

“In fact, yes, they helped her to get to the GP service, but did nothing else in the department.”

Natasha Abrahart
Image:
Natasha Abrahart took her own life in her second year of university

Her mother Margaret Abrahart added: “I think they were quite frightened to talk to her in case it was upsetting.

“But then at the same time, they seem OK with putting her into a situation that would be really upsetting.”

Her parents later learned of more attempts their daughter had made to get help.

Mr Abrahart said: “There’s records of her searching the internet for ways of solving her own problems.”

Her mother added: “It’s very tragic to see the attempts she made to sort out her own problems.

“It was just one of those problems that was just too difficult, and she needed help”.

Natasha Abrahart with parents Robert and Margaret
Image:
Natasha Abrahart with parents Robert and Margaret

Ultimately, a landmark court ruling found the university’s failures contributed to Natasha’s death.

At the time, the University of Bristol said staff worked hard and diligently to support her and it is committed to providing the best possible support for students.

The university has also applied to appeal the court’s decision.

The case sparked conversations around student mental health, and her parents continue to campaign so other students don’t experience the distress Natasha did.

There are also concerns about the training around mental health provided to student-facing staff.

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Sky News obtained data from 109 universities through Freedom of Information requests.

It showed that 98% offer student-facing staff mental health training.

However, it isn’t mandatory in 67 out of 107 institutions – that’s 63%.

And while 37%, 40 out of 107, have some form of mandate – in most cases, this doesn’t cover all staff.

Clinical psychologist Peter Kinderman told Sky News understanding of mental health must be widespread.

He said: “It should be part of the duty of care that all university staff – and that includes cleaning staff as well as lecturing staff – should have towards their students.

“It should be inherent in what universities do.

“If universities are ducking their responsibilities to understand and then support student mental health, then I think they’re at fault.”

Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email [email protected] in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK

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