Policy Context

The UK national policy context on student mental health: the whole university approach

Over the past ten years, student mental health has become a key priority for the university sector. Current student mental health policies and guidelines emphasise that support for mental health and wellbeing should be available across the whole university, not just provided by a discrete mental health service. Universities UK (UUK), the umbrella organisation representing the executive leadership of UK universities, alongside the Office for Students, UCAS and the student-led charity Student Minds have all championed this approach. This integration across the university setting has provided academic libraries with an opportunity to contribute to this important agenda.

Alongside this policy context, it should be recognised in many cases it has been the skills and expertise of academic library staff that have been the impetus for activities around mental health and wellbeing. The recognition of student need, and the awareness that the library performs an important function as a central location for providing information, support and study space created the conditions for library staff to implement new activities and innovate.

This ‘top down’ policy drive and the ‘grassroots’ activity happening in academic libraries have not thus far been well connected. However, academic libraries could benefit from an awareness of key policy initiatives, which support a case for action, and provide the opportunity to be strategic in encouraging links between the library and other services within the university.

Key policy developments (in chronological order) include:

  • The 2015 Student Mental wellbeing in Higher Education: good practice guide, written by the Mental wellbeing in Higher Education Expert Group (originally part of UUK and now hosted by AdvanceHE). This report started to outline what different universities should consider in providing support for mental health; recent updates to the UUK website mean it is no longer publicly available online.

  • Thornleys’s 2017 UUK-commissioned report Not by degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK's universities, which recommended a sector-wide response.

  • UUK’s 2017 #Stepchange Mental Health in Higher Education framework, which outlined the idea of a ‘whole university approach’ and focused on thinking about the impact of where students live, their learning, access to support and their sense of community on mental health. This framework was ‘refreshed’ in 2020, and now explicitly considers wellbeing alongside mental health as part of the Mentally Health Universities model.

  • UUK’s 2018 Minding our future: starting a conversation about the support of student mental health, which recognised the increased diversity of students and the growing need for a new model of support.

  • Suicide-safer universities, another UUK 2018 publication, which was a direct response to concerns about an increased number of suicides amongst university students in 2016-17 and is useful because it considers specific risks to the student population (e.g. moving away from established support systems).

  • The University Mental Health Charter, published in 2019 by Student Minds and based on research conducted with university staff and students, aligned to the whole university approach, and the four domains of the Mentally Healthy Universities model. This key document informs ongoing work around the University Mental Health Charter Award accreditation scheme, which many universities have signed up to.

  • The 2022 AdvanceHE Education for Mental Health Toolkit which focuses on the relationship between mental health and learning, considering how to structure the curriculum.

Other developments, resources and campaigns that are useful to be aware of include: