Today the government will be launching its new mental health strategy at a conference hosted by the Deputy Prime Minister. The government has made a commitment to achieve parity of esteem between physical and mental health and today's conference is set to look at ways of improving access to treatment, raising awareness of mental health and reducing stigma. According to Mr Clegg:
It is just plain wrong to treat mental health as the poor cousin to physical health in the NHS. There are too many parts of the country that have suffered for too long with commissioners in the NHS not providing mental health services with the same support as other parts of the NHS.
So what needs to be done? Below are some of the key points that we would like to see addressed at the conference:
A clear action plan outlining steps towards achieving parity of esteem between physical and mental health, including a commitment towards early intervention and preventative measures for mental health, as well as plans to raise public awareness about mental health and reduce the associated stigma.
Students should be a special interest group in work to improve mental health: In a 2011 report, the Royal College of Psychiatrists called for NHS providers to 'recognise and respond to the particular mental health needs of the student population and the difficulties that many experience in gaining equal access to services'. The needs of students are all too often neglected when drawing up mental health strategies, yet the student population is particularly vulnerable:
- The uniqueness of the student lifestyle involves adjusting to new academic demands, choices about alcohol and drugs, making new friends and living without parents for the first time.
- The years when a young person is at university coincide with the age of onset for various acute difficulties such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
- Having a degree does not guarantee a student a job, so young people are experiencing even more pressure to gain good honours degrees and to develop their skills so that they can stand out from the crowd in today's competitive job market.
- Student services are reporting an increase in the severity and prevalence of the troubles students are experiencing.
Support through university transitions: Despite the high prevalence of mental health problems among university students, there are significant gaps in support for student mental health:
- There is a clear lack of specialist services for this age group.
- Care systems are not adapted to the transient nature of student life, meaning treatment is often disrupted by frequent moves between home and university.
- With the current crisis in NHS mental health services, university support services increasingly have to pick up the pieces.
Students are therefore falling through the gaps between children's and adult services, as well as between home and university services when they move away to university. We therefore need to see the government committing to a mental health strategy that includes provisions for students, from greater awareness of transient student populations among NHS commissioners to an increase in the provision of targeted, linked-up interventions for students.
University mental health provision needs protecting and expanding: The NHS is not the only piece in the puzzle of student mental health. Universities are a key player in providing support to students with mental health problems, yet squeezing funding to Higher Education could well lead to squeezing the very budgets for mental health and welfare support that need protecting. Some key steps to providing effective support at university include:
- A strategic commitment to a ‘whole institution’ approach towards student wellbeing to benefit all students
- Investment in a range of interventions for a diverse university community
- Action at times of transition
- Inclusive teaching practices
- Supporting staff development and training
- Delivering effective, student–led health promotion activity
- Working collaboratively with external agencies and the NHS
Greater support for carers: As part of the government's carers' strategy to empower carers and to ensure they are supported in their role, we would like to see the introduction of workshops for carers, friends and family members to help them spot the signs of mental health problems and to give them the tools to support their loved one. To help meet this need, we will be launching a series of two-part workshops for those supporting a friend or family member with an eating disorder during EDAW 2014. To find out more, go to www.studentminds.org.uk/supporting-supporters.
Student Minds Founding Director, Nicola Byrom, will be taking part in discussions about what parity means in practice and what steps can be taken to promote pioneering and innovative work in mental health. Follow us @StudentMindsOrg to find out more!