Exclusive: Northumbria mental health referrals plummet during pandemic

University leadership ‘not concerned’ over the fall in numbers

An investigation by The Newcastle Tab has revealed that the number of students using Northumbria University’s mental health services fell by over 40 per cent in 2020 throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to a Freedom of Information request on behalf of The Newcastle Tab, the University revealed that in 2020, 1,406 students accessed their mental health services, a drop of over a thousand from the 2019 figure of 2,440.

A weekly breakdown of the numbers demonstrates that, as the pandemic spread, numbers began to fall, from 82 at the start of February to just 11 when the uni cancelled its face-to face-teaching on 16th March as a result of the pandemic.

This decrease is particularly concerning when compared with an ONS report finding that 57 per cent of students believe their mental health to have worsened during the pandemic.

Following this discovery, The Newcastle Tab approached Northumbria University and spoke with Sue Broadbent, an assistant director at the University with responsibility for student services. Broadbent told The Newcastle Tab: “The numbers don’t concern me – I think it can be explained by the fact that students are accessing more digital resources and more self-help resources. Our students’ union have put together some really great support hubs in terms of students’ wellbeing, all supported by local services in students’ local communities.

“I think one of the biggest advantages for students working at a distance is that they’ve been able to access support locally, through GP surgeries and through families, for example.”

Northumbria University has also recently invested heavily in Kooth Student, an online platform that provides all Northumbria students with free therapeutic support.  Broadbent explained: “The wait times are usually about 20 minutes, you can access it through text and email, and there’s lots of different groups and support services there.”

The University also made significant investments to reduce their waiting lists for support services. “Of course if a student is in crisis, they’ll be seen immediately, but for non-urgent services, the waiting list is down to 2-3 weeks. That’s the lowest it’s been at this time of year for a number of years. We’ve invested another 6.3 FTE [full-time equivalent staff] into that service this year to support students so students have been able to access services more quickly.”

The University’s optimism wasn’t shared by students, however. When polled as part of The Newcastle Tab’s weekly “Tuesday Debates” on Instagram, 87 per cent of respondents believed that the city’s universities were failing to do enough to support student mental health during the pandemic.

In response, Sue referenced a student communications boost, including an operation making over 30,000 check-up calls to students. “We’re saying to students ‘we’re interested in your wellbeing, how are you? What kind of support do you need? And when students are in need, we’re saying ‘let’s get you registered, let’s get you some support.’

“We are prepared to make the investment; we recognise the needs of students at the minute, and we want them to reach out to us.”

Northumbria students in need of any support are encouraged to access mental health support by going to the support and wellbeing dashboard through their student portals or calling Ask4Help at any time.

Other support is available, including Samaritans who are contactable on 116 123. In an emergency, call 999.

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