Here’s how London unis are ranked for supporting student mental health

Many London students described their uni’s services along the lines of ‘abysmal’ and ‘non-existent’

A new league table has been created to rank how well the biggest UK unis support student mental health.

Of the 13 London unis that made the list, UAL is the only one amongst the top 10, while the University of East London (UEL) and City, U of L, found themselves amongst the bottom 10 of the 80 unis ranked.

The ranking was made by mental health charity HUMEN after over 40,000 people signed a petition for it. HUMEN’s founder and CEO, River Hawkins, hopes this will make unis “consider mental support just as much as they value academic performance.”

London unis and their places on the national ranking (Data source: HUMEN)

The table ranks unis in five areas: how students feel about the support (“student satisfaction”), how many students would use these services (“engagement”), how many students know where to find help (“awareness”), how spending on mental health compare with the overall budget (“financing”), and how many staff are trained and designated to mental health per student (“provision”).

The data HUMEN used in this ranking comes from surveys of over 7,200 students and Freedom of Information (FOI) requests directly to the unis ranked. But this methodology has shortcomings like ranking unis that didn’t respond to the FOIs lower and only allowing a maximum of 80 students per uni to contribute to the survey. Some think these make the results questionable.

Regardless, the survey’s “concerning findings” showed that while 69 per cent of students struggle with mental health in uni, 51 per cent of students think their unis’ mental health services are not enough.

When The London Tab reached out to students about their thoughts on mental health support services at their London unis, most responses we’ve received have also been negative.

Two common complaints are about the long wait times and how misleading the services are advertised.

Maya*, a UCL Urban Planning, Design and Management student, told The London Tab she “felt lied to” when she “went months without receiving any information” on treatment after the initial assessment. She eventually gave up and went to the NHS instead, as agoraphobia and anxiety had really started to impact her studies.

She said: “It’s clear there’s a mental health crisis, and many people bleed to use these services, but the lack of transparency is definitely not working.

“I signed up in December, had an online assessment about a month later, but then there had been no correspondence until seven months later.

“I don’t really know what UCL could do better. But maybe it could be helpful to keep students updated on waiting times (rather than a deliberately misleading ‘Our waiting time for an initial appointment after registering is two to three weeks’). They could also make it clear the initial appointment is just the assessment – not actual treatment,” she said.

Andy*, who also goes to UCL, agreed with Maya. They received six weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) from the uni’s counselling services, but not until a year after signing up.

While they wanted to make clear that the counselling had been very helpful, they found it misleading and problematic when their therapist told them that the support “works better on people who aren’t suffering as much at that time.”

“This makes sense, but it’s not advertised that way,” they said, “since UCL advertised their services like, ‘we’re here for you.’ And I think when people are in crisis, they don’t understand that.”

Relatedly, Andy also thought it’s an issue that students must navigate through “way too complicated” criteria to access support. For example, they talked about a friend who couldn’t even sign up for the counselling service because the extensive personal details required on the registration form were too much for their anxiety.

But Andy found it particularly problematic that one of the criteria says students with “very complex or chronic issues with mental health” can be refused counselling at the uni. These students are often diverted to external “specialist services,” which usually mean even longer waitlists and complex referral processes.

They thought barring some students from basic therapy is “ridiculous, as some support is better than no support.”

“It’s almost as if they’re afraid that you’ll go and kill yourself in those six weeks or what happens if it doesn’t work because you’ve got too many mental health problems going.

“I think six weeks of CBT is better than nothing, even if people don’t want to admit that and don’t want to take you on because you’re too much responsibility,” they said.

Students with certain mental health issues are diverted away from UCL’s counselling services, which some think is unreasonable and makes support harder to access for these students (image credit: UCL)

One of the reasons the mental health league table was created was in response to the salient issue of suicides, which HUMEN has recognised as “the biggest killer of under 24s in the UK.”

Recent data revealed 319 suicides at English and Welsh universities from 2016 to 2020, but even this number may be an underestimate as student suicides aren’t even recorded at 59 per cent of the UK’s universities.

Mental health campaigner Ben West was among the first to call for unis to be ranked on supporting mental health. He created the petition calling for it after losing his brother to suicide and speaking with the families and friends of students who had tragically died during the lockdown.

Ben told The Tab: “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 it is okay to keep going like that? It’s young people with huge potential in life, and they’re dying.”

By having a mental health ranking, Ben hopes it can be a suggestion for universities to do better and “an incredibly important tool” for students when choosing their universities. But while this implies bleak mental health support systems at unis that don’t rank very high, Ben wanted to stress he didn’t “want to dissuade people from going to seek support if they need it.”

He said: “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.”

*names changed to preserve anonymity

In response to the students’ comments, a UCL spokesperson said: “The wellbeing of our students is of the greatest importance, and we continually strive to offer the best care for our community. Through our ‘PsychUp for Wellbeing’ programme, we offer a wide range of services to provide support for mental health and any psychological issues.

“Our Student Support and Wellbeing Services provide same day and pre-booked appointments to help students address any personal and health (including social, physical and mental health) difficulties. Advisors listen and seek to understand how a student might be feeling and can also help them identify and access the appropriate therapeutic or medical support, including crisis services. They also provide practical support and help with support plans and any adjustments to their studies.

“Student Support and Wellbeing also has a dedicated team which offers in person and online counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, psychodynamic therapy, psychiatric support and psycho-educational groups to help students with personal, emotional and psychological concerns. This service is complemented by a 365 day-a-year telephone and online counselling service to help students with a wide range of emotional and wellbeing concerns as and when they might arise.

“In addition to this we have two student focused mental health service collaborations with the NHS; the University Clinic service for anxiety and depression provides high quality, evidence-based psychological treatment and, as part of the same facility, we have the Changing Unwanted BEhaviour (CUBE) clinic, which provides free, confidential support to UCL students, who want help with issues including alcohol and drugs misuse, gaming and gambling. We also have regular meetings with NHS colleagues to ensure effective co-ordination of services between UCL and the NHS, including for students with severe mental health problems.

“All of our support services are free of charge and open to all UCL students of all levels of study. We encourage anyone struggling with their mental health and wellbeing to contact Student Support and Wellbeing Services and can either raise an enquiry via askUCL or if they prefer they can visit the walk-in Student Enquiries Centre who can also help and book appointments.”

University of East London (UEL) and City, U of L, have been contacted for comment.

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