Labour demands urgent action to support mental health of university students

Elliot Chappell

Labour has called on the government to take urgent action to support the mental health of self-isolating university students and warned that a failure to act could trigger a “crisis for thousands of young people”.

The opposition party is urging the government to work with students, universities and students’ unions to ensure that every young person has the resources they need amid local lockdowns being imposed on UK campuses.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson acknowledged the negative impact of restrictions on the mental health of students when addressing the House of Commons on Tuesday, but did not unveil any additional support.

Green branded the failure to outline support for students an act of “shocking complacency”, adding that many young people are “now self-isolating with a group of people who are practically strangers”. Labour has called on the government to:

  1. “Outline an emergency package of measures that will support the mental health of students, particularly those who are self-isolating;
  2. “Ensure that existing services are genuinely accessible, with signposting of support for all students to be reinforced; and
  3. “Work with students and students’ unions, as well as universities, accommodation providers and local NHS and mental health partners, to deliver support where it is most needed.”

Responding to reports of students across the country being quarantined in their accommodation, Labour leader Keir Starmer and Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green will hold a Zoom meeting with students on Thursday afternoon.

Commenting ahead of the online outreach event, Green said: “Students across the country are in an extremely difficult position, and many are now self-isolating with a group of people who are practically strangers.

“The challenges in returning to universities were predictable and predicted, and it was an act of shocking complacency for the government to fail to ensure that students would all get the support they need.”

Labour has highlighted evidence showing that support for students was inadequate before the pandemic. According to 2019 data, 25% of unis had cut or frozen their mental health budgets and some students waited over three months for counselling.

Also commenting on the challenges facing university students, shadow minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan said: “The current situation for students across the country requires urgent attention.

“Even before the pandemic, students were placed on long waiting lists for access to mental health services – we cannot have students falling through the cracks now.”

The shadow minister for mental health added: “Parents deserve to know that when they send their children to university, they are safe and their wellbeing is supported.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson admitted in parliament on Tuesday that the situation on university campuses will affect the mental health and wellbeing of students, but did not announce any additional support.

Referring to mental health concerns while updating MPs in the House of Commons on the return of students to universities, he said only: “We must be mindful of how that will affect the mental health and wellbeing of students.

“Many universities have bolstered existing mental health services and offer alternatives to face-to-face consultations.”

Higher Education Statistics Agency research found that the number of students reporting a mental health condition has risen sharply in recent years, with over twice as many in 2018/19 than in 2014/15.

In a survey of young people with a history of mental health needs, carried out by Young Minds in July this year, 80% of respondents reported that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health condition deteriorate.

Commenting on those starting university this year, the same report said: “Many said they felt anxious and apprehensive, both in terms of their studies and the likelihood of having a full university experience.

“Young people expressed apprehension about what fresher’s week would be like in the current context, and about forming friendships. There was also a great deal of confusion and a feeling of being unprepared for what to expect.”

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