Universities are failing to contact parents when their child has mental health problems, according to a new survey
"His mental health deteriorated to the point that he stopped going to lectures and tutorials. We did not know this. No-one from the university checked up on him. He had no appointments with a personal tutor. We did not know anything was a problem until our son sent us a message indicating that he did not want to live.” Parent of university student
Students with mental health problems may face a long wait to receive support from their university, and even when it arrives it is often insufficient, a survey has found.
The survey by the House of Commons petitions committee was carried out online in response to a petition calling for a statutory legal duty of care for students in higher education. It was shared only with people who signed the petition, and asked them about their experiences of mental health support at university. The findings are therefore reflective of those who completed the survey, rather than more widely, a petitions committee briefing note says. MPs will discuss the petition today (5 June).
Of the 1,535 survey responses, just over a third were from parents, while 21% were a parent or guardian of a former university student, 15% were former university students and 10% were current students.
Four in five parents responded that they “disagree” or “strongly disagree” that the current mental health support for university students is adequate. Many were critical of universities for failing to contact them when their child was struggling with mental health. Others said that when they approached their child’s university to raise concerns, these were not escalated. “I contacted the university to say my son was struggling and they said they could only address the situation if he contacted them,” one parent wrote. “When a person is in a bad or low place they are not likely to contact someone […] It would make far more sense that the default position is that parents can discuss their children and there should be an opt out by the student if they do not wish this to be the situation.”
Some expressed concern at the lack of support available for neurodivergent and disabled students. One parent wrote: “My son is autistic and this was on his UCAS application and details were provided to his university. But no support was put in place. Instead, he was expected to fill in more forms and register with the disability service. Things that he was not capable of doing because of his autism. His mental health deteriorated to the point that he stopped going to lectures and tutorials. We did not know this. No-one from the university checked up on him. He had no appointments with a personal tutor. We did not know anything was a problem until our son sent us a message indicating that he did not want to live.”
Amongst current students who responded, 86% of current students said they had suffered with poor mental health at university, but only 1% said their university was “very supportive” of their mental health. Two in five said that their university was “unsupportive” or “very unsupportive” of their mental health, while two-thirds said they would feel “uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable” discussing their mental health with their academic supervisor or tutor.
A respondent who worked at a university said waits for treatment could be lengthy: “Students can wait a whole academic year to be seen and supported and the burden of care is often left with personal tutors in the department.”
Many felt that when mental health support was provided, it was inadequate. One student wrote: “The counselling service at my university only allows students to access 6 sessions during their whole time at the university. Given that students are typically at university for 3+ years I feel that students should be able to access it more than once.”
Respondents felt strongly that universities owed a duty of care to students. “Duty of care exists in all areas of work and apprenticeships but not for vulnerable young adults,” one parent wrote. “Lack of duty of care in higher education is a serious omission in the UK legislation that needs to be rectified. We need a level playing field. Students should have the same right to duty of care as everyone else.”
The government responded by saying that higher education providers already have a general duty of care not to cause harm to their students through their own actions, and that further legislation to create a statutory duty of care would be “disproportionate”.
In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of university students experiencing mental health problems – one 2022 survey found that 81% of students had been affected by mental health difficulties. The responses to the House of Commons survey show that some universities are not offering appropriate support to students, leaving many to suffer in silence. A spate of 14 suicides in four years at the University of Bristol show that this is a real and pressing problem. Parents are right to be concerned that universities are neglecting to contact them when their child is struggling. Although technically higher education students are young adults, the switch to living away from home away from friends and family can be disorienting, and we think that universities can do far more to support those making the transition and that must include involving parents where necessary.