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University regulator unveils £14m mental health scheme to reduce student suicides

Too many young people have experiences ‘blighted by mental ill-health’, says watchdog boss

University regulator unveils £14m mental health scheme to reduce student suicides
At least 95 university students took their own lives in the 12 months to July 2017 in England and Wales, the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show ( Oversnap/Getty )

A £14.5m programme to help reduce the number of student suicides at universities and colleges in England has been unveiled by the higher education regulator.

Nicola Dandridge, the head of the Office for Students (OfS), has said too many students are having their experience “blighted by mental ill-health” and more should be done to tackle the issue.

One of the projects awarded funding includes an Early Alert Tool, led by Northumbria University, which will identify students at risk of mental health crisis by mining data sources, like social media.

The scheme, which focuses on early warning signs, has been launched in response to figures showing that only one in three people who die by suicide are known to mental health services.

The OfS the sector’s watchdog, has awarded £6m in funding to universities and colleges, with co-funding of £8.5m, to combat a rise in student mental health concerns.

The proportion of full-time UK undergraduate students reporting mental health concerns when they enter university has more than doubled over the last five years, according to recent figures.

At least 95 university students took their own lives in the 12 months to July 2017 in England and Wales, the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show.

Ten projects have been given funding as part of the collaborative programme, which includes a scheme at the University of Nottingham that will focus on international students.

A scheme by the University of Lincoln will focus on supporting students through the transition from school to university.

Meanwhile, the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, will focus on partnership working between higher education and the NHS to improve mental health support.

It comes after at least 13 students from Bristol – both at UWE and the University of Bristol – died over the past three years, a number of which have been confirmed as suicides.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “In too many cases students are having their experience of higher education blighted by mental ill-health. For many of these students, there is much more that we can do.

“Taking preventative action to promote good mental health is critical, as is taking a whole institution approach and involving students in developing solutions.

“In addition, the earlier we can identify issues developing, the more effectively we can give the vital support that is needed.”

Data published by the OfS suggests full-time students with a mental health condition are more likely to drop out, and less likely to achieve a first or 2:1 degree.

Last year, the government announced a University Mental Health Charter in Bristol which hopes to drive up standards in promoting student mental health by recognising good practice.

And in March, the Department for Education unveiled plans for a new taskforce which will work to give more support to those going from sixth form to higher education.

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Chris Skidmore, universities minister said: “Our universities are world-leading in so many areas and I want them to be the best for mental health support too.”

He added: “Many universities are providing valuable support to their students but there is further to go to make sure all students have the support they need in place.”

A spokesperson for the National Union of Students said: "It is entirely right to be considering the ways we can prevent student suicide and there may be a role for technology in this work.

"However, many students will be concerned about an approach which ‘monitors’ them so closely, including the nature of the data collected, who is able to access to it and how it could or will be used for other purposes.

"Students must be empowered to have a say in whether their data is shared and with whom."

John de Pury, assistant director of policy and mental health policy lead for Universities UK, said: “UUK is delighted to be working with Northumbria and other partners on this ambitious project to harness leading digital analytics to realise our shared vision to transform health and educational outcomes.

“This reaffirms that the UK sector is taking a leading approach to mental health in higher education.”

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