Towards a richer and deeper support landscape in the capital

This blog has been written by Emily Dixon, Senior Research and Content Officer and Jolanta Edwards, Director of Strategy, both at London Higher. 

The figures vary, but we know that mental health issues will affect somewhere between one in three and one in six people in the UK in their lifetime. These issues can be varied and complex. In 2024, pressures on young people and students experiencing mental health issues are rising.  

In February there was a thought-provoking piece in the Guardian stating that 5% of people in their early 20s are unable to work due to a due to disability, in particular mental health issues, compared to other age groups. We know from higher education institutions that they see and hear from students about the challenges they face, and so we also know that in London there are additional stresses in managing the cost of living. Accommodation is expensive, with the cost of rented accommodation increasing more than all other English areas in the year to January 2024, with transport also being a significant cost in London for those that need to use it.   

For those working in higher education, it has been impossible to watch the growing numbers of students requiring additional mental health support, and not take some form of action. Supporting student wellbeing means tackling how these difficult circumstances affect both the whole student population, as well as the subset of disabled students living with mental health conditions.   

London’s higher education institutions (HEIs) have been putting time and effort into picking apart what causes these issues, understanding who is suffering and where support needs to be targeted.  

For example, in the last year, King’s College London has worked with Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO) to try to pinpoint some of the reasons for these changing numbers. The final report drew on a large dataset to conclude that students from working class backgrounds, female students, and LGBTQ students are disproportionately more vulnerable to mental ill health than their peers. The report recommended more support for clinical and crisis services to meet increased need, as well as increasing contact time between students and academic staff to build a sense of community. The report advised paying attention to ways in which the background and experiences of particular student sub-groups shape their response to different types of wellbeing interventions, to ensure we are not treating all students as a homogenous group and to establish what help works best for different groups experiencing these issues.  

As well as conducting research on mental health and wellbeing issues for students, London HEIs are providing practical support for their students and communities.  

LSE is offering a mental health mentoring scheme giving impartial advice to students facing mental health difficulties and enabling them to get the most out of their time at LSE. The School for Student Experience at Goldsmiths University of London is using innovative transition projects to tackle the issue of students not feeling they belong at university, helping students from underrepresented backgrounds improve their wellbeing and sense of connection before more serious problems have had the chance to develop. The Students’ Union at Birkbeck is developing a new anti-loneliness campaign, aiming to foster connection and belonging among Birkbeck’s disproportionately mature and part time student body.  

These are just a handful of the initiatives taking place across London. Working to support student mental health and wellbeing requires varied approaches on many fronts and careful monitoring, because good mental health and poor mental health both have many moving parts. Giving students an outlet to express how their wellbeing is changing at university through mentoring, prioritising connection and belonging during potentially difficult transition periods and raising awareness around loneliness and ways of developing new networks and relationships on campus are partial solutions which help remedy a larger, multifaceted set of interconnected issues.  

No one initiative can be a blanket solution to these issues. These are issues that the higher education sector will always, to a certain extent, be grappling with. London’s higher education institutions bring thousands of students together from all over the world in a place that is rich in opportunity but can be overwhelming and expensive. London Higher’s Wellbeing Connect tool aims to signpost and provide information to support students who are navigating finding mental health help in the capital city. In the current context of the high cost of living, uncertainty about the future and about the state of the world among young people, London’s universities must work with their students and communities to foster a sense of connection and community with clear signs of where to access help. As rich as the UK’s largest city is in employers, cultural offerings and communities, it is also rich in sources of support.  Continued support from different quarters will continue to be needed to give every student in the capital the opportunity to thrive.