Our sector: Are SUs Mental Health charities?

Ed Moloney has recently caused some controversy by suggesting that all SUs are mental health charities, and that we should start treating ourselves as such. Given that this week is Mental Health Awareness Week [1] he’s decided to put pen to paper, and in this article he outlines why he thinks SUs already meet the definition of a mental health charity, what advantages this approach could bring us, and addresses some of the frequently asked questions that he’s already had from ‘SU bods’ on the issue.

Why the focus on Mental Health?

There’s barely an SU election this year that hasn’t featured manifestos that address mental health on campus. It’s the key issue- and with good reason given the rising number of students and young people being affected by poor mental health in the UK right now:

  • At least 1 in 4 students are affected by clinical levels of psychological distress [2]
  • 54% of students with poor mental health don’t seek help [3]
  • Student support services saw a 150% increase in appointments in 2014-15 [4]
  • Wellbeing in the student population has been found to be lower than the same age group not in higher education. [5]
  • 1 in 12 young people self-harm [6]
  • Suicide is the number one cause of death for men aged 20-34 in the UK [7]

Added to that, NHS services are massively over-stretched and are looking to the third sector for support. As a movement we could do so much to debunk the many myths that still exist around mental health and our officers are looking for ideas both on what we should calling on Universities to do, but crucially on what we should be doing too.

Why are SUs mental health charities?

The New Economics Foundation (nef) is a UK think tank that was commissioned by the government to develop a set of evidence-based actions to improve personal wellbeing, a concept defined as “feeling good and functioning well”. In 2008 it published its seminal work “The Five Ways to Wellbeing” [8]. It is widely regarded as the definitive text on how the public should look after their own mental health, and has had an impact on public health policy in many governments across the world, including the UK, and it remains the backbone of advice given to NHS patients [9].

As you’d expect, the document describes five ways to promote mental wellbeing. These are:

  • Connect
  • Be active
  • Keep learning
  • Give to others
  • Take notice

My contention is that based on these simple ways to wellbeing, almost all SUs can be described as mental health charities. I will try to demonstrate this below:

Way to Wellbeing nef Description How SUs already facilitate this
Connect “Connect with the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.” We run commercial services that allow students to connect to each other daily.

We run sports clubs and societies that develop a sense of belonging on campus. We encourage students to progress from being in a club/society to volunteer to lead that society, and invest in their student community.

We are a key part of student induction activities, where many students make their first friends away from home.

Be active “Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Dance. Exercising makes you feel good. Most importantly, discover a physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness.” We run BUCS competitions and help recruit students into competitive sports. We encourage participation in sports through campaigns such as “This Girl Can”.

We help run societies that get people active, from Martial Arts to Quidditch.

We run ‘Give It A Go’ sessions to encourage participation.

We like Stephan’s Socks

Keep Learning “Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn to play an instrument or how to cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you will enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.” All students learn.

We encourage learning outside of the course through other societies, student representation, training activities, leadership development and even by being politically active organisations that encourage students to think about the world around them.

Student Leaders get employability skills and development through their role and the support we give them.

We employ student staff and give them opportunities to develop key employability skills.

Give to Others Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you. We run Raise and Give (RAG) societies. Many other societies fundraise for a charity of their choice.

Across the country students spend hundreds of thousands of hours volunteering their time.

We elect student leaders every year, who help to build a community on campus and create connections with others.

Take Notice Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you. We run campaigns to raise awareness of mental health (e.g. “Mind Your Mate”) and to take a break from the stresses of everyday life (e.g. farm animals/ puppies on campus).

We run elections each year to develop our community.

We encourage students to reflect on their performance through employability programmes, leadership development programmes, etc.

What would the impact on SUs be?

So if we called ourselves “Mental Health Charities” there would be no immediate impact on SUs as a whole. We would still basically provide the same services to our members:

  • Sports Clubs
  • Societies
  • Volunteering / Fundraising
  • Student officers
  • Induction and Welcome Week
  • Commercial Services (Bars, Coffee shops, shops).
  • Give It A Go

We could simply arrange our services into these five ways to wellbeing. In fact, this is the framework that I am going to suggest to Bolton SU’s Board of Trustees for our next strategic plan. The way I see it, it gives us

  • A clearer raison d’être both for our staff, our student members and other stakeholders. This is vitally important as it makes us more accessible and understandable to the general public, makes us harder to criticise in the press, and best of all I can finally explain to my mum what I actually do for a living.
  • A way of accessing new income streams, such as the National Lottery, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Charlie Waller Trust, Matthew Elvidge Trust, and others. Diversifying income streams can only be a good thing given the state of the HE sector and current political instability. This also applies to HEFCE and other sector funding- typically SUs are not great at accessing this.
  • A strong argument for block grant increases, given the current mental health crisis (see above).
  • A way to make connections with other Third Sector organisations in the local community, which could complement the current support we get from NUS.
  • Much better arguments for why students (and others) should spend in our commercial services. The argument that profit will be recycled into a charity dedicated to student mental health is patently far more compelling.
  • A way to involve commercial services in our strategic planning, rather than only looking at them like cash cows that simply enable our other activities (see “connect” above).
  • Plenty of opportunities for positive local and national news stories. Consider that Princes William and Harry with Princess Catherine have recently fired the starting gun on this. Let’s ride the wave of this change.

Just these benefits are more than enough reason to proceed on this basis. And just to be clear, I’m not advocating that SUs start employing counsellors or CBT practitioners- I’m saying we need to work on sub-clinical cases; on prevention rather than cure.

Advice and Representation?

One of the questions I’ve been asked is whether this approach would undermine our advice and representation work. My view is that fundamentally, being a mental health charity doesn’t stop us from being advocates or from representing students.

Firstly, let’s consider the scale of the challenge that is ahead of us, as mentioned above. The quality of Mental Health services are often poor, and are not designed to meet students’ or young people’s specific needs. If we accept that, then we’re talking about SUs supporting an under-represented, underserved minority demographic; a demographic that needs both advocacy and representation as well as welfare support.

If we consider other under-represented groups, such as the LGBT+ community, they need the same support. LGBT Foundations are dedicated to providing this support, both looking after LGBT people’s welfare, but also advocating on their behalf. The same is true if you consider immigrants charities, veteran’s charities, other mental health charities, or even animal charities. SUs can do this as well- support students’ mental health, but also advocate on their behalf.

What would this do to our advice, representation and advocacy work? In some ways our work would continue as normal; being a mental health charity would just give us a bit of a steer on our work. We’d probably

  • Focus course rep training on ensuring students have clarity on their course and they’re as stress-free as possible. Things like ensuring learning outcomes are clear, that assignments aren’t bunched together, that changes are communicated effectively.
  • Ask Student Officers to relate their objectives and/or manifesto pledges to one of the Five Ways to Wellbeing. This is potentially controversial, but I challenge any officer to give me an example of a manifesto commitment that cannot be assigned to one of the five ways.
  • Do further work on the partnership agenda, and how students’ mental health is adversely affected by the commercialisation of higher education [10].

Mental health affects everything that we do, and everything that we engage with. Making any improvement to the quality or organisation and management of our universities and courses will inevitably lead to improved mental health for our members.

Would we have to update our organisational status?

No, I don’t think so. Making this change wouldn’t affect us under the 1994 Education Act, and the Objects that most SUs have adopted as part of their charitable activities would accommodate this change [11].

What next?

As I’ve already said above, I’ll be asking my Board of Trustees to endorse this approach as a framework for our new Strategic Plan (2018-21).

Before then I have a session at Membership Services Conference in Liverpool where I will be asking participants to imagine that this decision has already been made, and SUs everywhere are already mental health charities. What would this do to us, and our work? How would this impact our relationship with stakeholders, including students, the University, the community and even ‘helicopter’ parents looking in a prospectus?

So…what do you think in general? Good idea or bad? I’m sure there’s information and ideas I’ve missed, please feel free to contribute to the discussion by commenting below or email me. I’d really value any feedback.


Thanks to Dr Emily McIntosh for planting many of the ideas for this article in my head. Thanks also to Caroline, Matt, Tricia, Alan, Janet and others for their input.

Thanks to Rosie Tressler and Rachel Piper from Student Minds for their excellent article on wonkHE, from where I got a few of my above stats. Their article is available here and is well worth a read.


[1] The 8th to the 14th of May 2017. See https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week/get-involved (retrieved 10/05/2017).

[2] YouGov Survey (2016): https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/08/09/quarter-britains-students-are-afflicted-mental-hea/ (retrieved 10/05/2017)

[3] NUS Survey (2015): https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/dec/14/majority-of-students-experience-mental-health-issues-says-nus-survey (retrieved 10/05/2017)

[4] Williams, Matthew and Coare, Pam and Marvell, Rosa and Pollard, Emma and Houghton, Ann-Marie and Anderson, Jill (2015) Understanding provision for students with mental health problems and intensive support needs : Report to HEFCE by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) and Researching Equity, Access and Partnership (REAP). Available at http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/80492/ (retrieved 10/05/2017).

[5] Neaves, J. and Hillman, N. (2016); The Student Academic Experience Survey 2016. HEPI. Available at http://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Student-Academic-Experience-Survey-2016.pdf (retrieved 10/05/2017)

[6] Moran et al. (2010) “The natural history of self-harm from adolescence to young adulthood: a population-based cohort study” in The Lancet n.379: http://thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(11)61141-0/abstract (retrieved 10/05/2017)

[7] Office of National Statistics (2015). “What do we die from?”: Available at http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/vsob1/mortality-statistics–deaths-registered-in-england-and-wales–series-dr-/2014/sty-what-do-we-die-from.html (retrieved 10/05/2017).

[8] New Economics Foundation (2008) “Five Ways to Mental Wellbeing” available via http://neweconomics.org/2011/07/five-ways-well-new-applications-new-ways-thinking/?sf_action=get_results&_sf_s=five+ways+well+being

[9] http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/improve-mental-wellbeing.aspx (retrieved 10/05/2017)

[10] Especially given this recent article: Gani, A. (2016) Tuition Fees “Have Led to Surge in Students Seeking Counselling”. The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/13/tuition-fees-have-led-to-surge-in-students-seeking-counselling (retrieved 10/05/2017).

[11] The objects SUs have generally adopted are: “promoting the interests and welfare of Students at the University of XYZ during their course of study and representing, supporting and advising Students; being the recognised representative channel between Students and the University of XYZ and any other external bodies; and providing social, cultural, sporting and recreational activities and forums for discussions and debate for the personal development of its Students.”

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