Are Universities healthy?

David Scott

Published 18 November 2019

Ceara Thacker was a first year philosophy student at Liverpool University. In May 2018 she was found dead in her hall of residence.  The inquest into her death was told that she had been prescribed anti-depressant medication, having suffered from mental health problems since age 13. However her family had not been told by the university of her suicide attempt after, just 3 months earlier, she had taken an overdose.

Former Health Minister Sir Norman Lamb initiated Freedom of Information requests about these issues and 110 universities responded with information. The focus of these requests was the demand for, and investment in, mental heath support for students.

The responses in Sir Norman Lamb’s report paint a complex and fragmented picture of mental health provision across universities in the UK. It is a chilling survey. The longest waiting time to access mental health services, at the Royal College of Music, was 12 weeks. The shortest waiting time was at the School of Oriental and African Studies – 2 days. The average waiting time was a staggering 50 days. Some universities simply didn’t have the data to enable them to answer to the question.

This ignorance was also reflected in responses to the investment question. Some universities didn’t know what their budgets for well-being services were. A few reported annual budgets in excess of £1 million. Many had budgets of less than £0.5 million.

The response from Universities UK to the report displayed an aversion on the part of the universities to accepting responsibility. “Universities cannot address these challenges alone. The NHS must provide effective mental health care to students.”

This response from Universities UK and the narrative to date lend a degree of urgency to the recommendations in Sir Norman Lamb’s report. He proposed that universities should be legally obliged to meet the mental health needs of their student body. He called for the implementation of a legally binding charter with minimum standards which universities would be required to meet.

Other recommendations to help universities to become safer places for their students were that:

  • parents should be informed in a case such as that of Ceara Thacker
  • there should be a monitoring framework enabling a university to spot a troubled student
  • graduates should also have access to mental health support.

Whether universities will be willing to make investments of this nature, absent any obligation to do so, remains an unanswered question.

Adrian Barr-Smith

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