Introducing: The new uni league table that cares about student mental health

‘We want universities to consider mental support just as much as they value academic performance’

A new university mental health league table of UK unis has been created – and the findings show many are being failed.

Mental health charity HUMEN has ranked 80 of the country’s biggest universities on how they support students and their mental health, taking into account everything from the quality of the uni’s mental health services and wait times, to how much they actually spend on student support.

Recently-published data by the Office for National Statistics revealed there were 319 suicides at English and Welsh universities over a four year period, from the 2016/17 to 2019/20 academic years. However, the number may tragically be even higher – Freedom of Information requests sent by National World reveal 59 per cent of UK universities don’t actually record student suicides.

Mental health campaigner Ben West, who lost his brother to suicide in 2018, has been calling for such a league table for a long time. Over 40,000 people now have signed a petition he set up last year, calling for the leading UK university league tables to include mental health support services as part of their rankings.

“We can’t let young people keep just dying at university,” he told The Tab. “We need to stop people being okay with the fact that so many, hundreds and hundreds of people, are dying in their halls of residence in their accommodation at uni. It’s just appalling.”

Reading is in first place on the league table, giving the best overall mental health services, followed by Oxford and University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

At the bottom of the University Mental Health League Table is Birmingham, followed by Lancaster and Bedfordshire. Also in the bottom 10 of the league table are prestigious Russell Group unis Newcastle, Nottingham and Southampton.

Bristol comes in 68th out of the 80 UK unis in the mental health league table. A court recently found the university had discriminated against its student Natasha Abrahart, finding its actions contributed to her death by suicide in April 2018. (The University of Bristol is currently considering appealing the court’s decision.)

Oxford has come second on the University Mental Health League Table

River Hawkins, founder and CEO of mental health charity HUMEN, says: “We want universities and students to consider mental support just as much as they value academic performance.” He told The Tab it should be just as important, saying that if someone is detrimentally impacted because of lack of mental health support at uni, “everything else in your life” can be impacted.

“We all talk about the importance of the parallel of physical and mental health, it should be the same with academia and mental health support in universities,” he says.

When they made the petition back in lockdown last year, Ben West (who is a charity beneficiary of HUMEN as well as a mental health campaigner) had been spending time speaking with the friends and families of students who had sadly died, including Manchester student Finn Kitson and Bristol student Olisa Odukwe. “I just saw there was such a gap that people were falling through”, Ben told The Tab.

“I can’t bear the thought of having to sit down with another group of friends that have just lost their friend”, Ben says. “I hate that, it’s awful. For me, it’s almost like a desperation. We can’t keep going like this. We just can’t.”

He says: “Change now is just so, so, so important. Because it’s not sustainable. We can’t let young people keep just dying at university. How can anyone think that is okay to keep going like that? It’s young people with huge potential in life, and they’re dying. We can’t be okay with that and we need change, and this is our suggestion for change.

“We need to stop people being okay with the fact that so many, hundreds and hundreds of people, are dying in their halls of residence in their accommodation at uni. It’s just appalling. And it’s so, so devastatingly sad for me and for everyone else involved.”

The Mental Health League Table ranks the 80 UK universities which have over 10,000 students each, giving them scores in five areas:

• Student satisfaction – including overall mental health support, quality of mental health services

• Engagement – including proportion of students who would use university services

• Awareness – proportion of students who know where to find help at university

• Financing – universities and mental health budget per student

• Provision – including staff training, designated members of staff and wait times

Reading and Brighton have the largest budgets for mental health, in proportion with university income. UCLan students are the most satisfied with their mental health support, with this uni scoring the highest in student satisfaction.

The scores in the five areas then result in the final rankings, with each uni being given an overall score out of 100. However, some of the universities failed to respond to HUMEN and so were marked negatively in the league table. The league table is set to rival other, purely academic, league tables, and will be updated yearly as others are.

Ben hopes the league table will make universities see mental health support as not just a “tick box”, but something they can compete against each other for as they do in academic league tables, and says they should look at themselves and as well as learn lessons from those unis at the top of the table. River urges unis to “take accountability” and feel “the responsibility to improve and to continue to improve”, not just do one-off initiatives.

‘We can’t let young people keep just dying at university’, says activist Ben West (via Instagram @iambenwest)

“Students right now know how important mental health support is”, Ben says. To unis, he says: “Accept the result. Learn the lessons … put the investment into creating excellence in your mental health support. If not for the moral reasons that you can save lives and help ease suffering, then for the fact that actually, students really want to be supported at uni, and that’s a key decision students will start to make as they apply to universities.”

A lot of areas of student mental health support need work, Ben says – “but all of that stems from the culture in the top of the university”, and this is what needs to change. Ben calls for a culture shift away from leaders who “roll their eyes” at mental health, or tick-box exercises unis may feel they “need to be seen to be doing”, and towards actually trying to be the best, as they already do with teaching and academic support.

Birmingham has come 80th of the 80 UK unis on the mental health support league table

The University Mental Health League Table is a tool that can help people make an informed choice about where they go to university, Ben thinks. “A lot of young people now recognise that mental health is something that’s really important to them. They now have the means, because of this league table, to make an informed decision about where they go and spend three years of their life.

“I think that’s an incredibly important tool to give people to protect them, when we know university can be such a difficult place for so many people.”

However, Ben is keen to stress that whilst uni mental health support needs to be improved, it is already there, and people shouldn’t be dissuaded from seeking the treatment they deserve. “I don’t want to dissuade people from going to seek support if they need it. Mental health support at university is there, the difficulty is awareness and transparency. If any students are struggling right now, please go and talk to your tutor or mental health support. It’s not perfect, but it is there, and that shouldn’t be a reason to avoid going.”

Both River and Ben think the government should be doing more, putting clear national policies and guidelines in place to push change and make things more transparent – but this doesn’t mean unis should be off the hook whatsoever. “As consumers, students, I think people forget how much power young people have in where they choose to apply to”, Ben says, and the mental health league table can help people make that informed decision.

“I don’t think we should overlook the power we hold in skipping past government and creating the change ourselves.”

You can see HUMEN’s full University Mental Health League Table here.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58. 

If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

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