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'How I help improve student mental health'

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University students undergo big transitions, which can affect their mental health. Dr Luke Jefferies describes his work as a mental health adviser helping students through these difficulties.

"In the 65 years since the NHS was founded, attitudes to mental health, including student mental health, have dramatically changed," says Luke, who works at the Mental Health and Disability Service at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

"Not only do medics now take student mental health more seriously," he says, "but the universities themselves are conscious that they train the doctors and nurses of tomorrow.

"If we continue to reduce the stigma of mental health and raise awareness of it, our medical students will go on to influence the way mental health is treated over the next 65 years."

Luke, originally an NHS psychologist, has always had an interest in student mental health. He moved to the University of East Anglia four years ago to take on the mental health adviser role.

Students have unique mental health challenges

With many students living away from home for the first time, they can struggle to make new friends and find their own identity. They may also be exposed to drugs, alcohol and issues around their sexuality and sexual health for the first time.

On top of these factors, Luke's clients come to him with a range of difficulties, including those struggling with long-term health conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy and Asperger's syndrome.

"In addition to seeing students with mental health difficulties, which can range from low-level depression to psychosis or schizophrenia, I also see people with physical health conditions as I have a combined role of mental health and disability adviser," he explains.

As well as liaising with academic staff over adjustments required, Luke ensures these students get access to the counselling and NHS services they need. "It's a co-ordinating role, which also involves working on-site with the disability team."

University Mental Health Advisers Network

Luke is a member of the University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN), which was formed in 2002 by a small group of mental health advisers working in higher education. The charity is dedicated to supporting students experiencing mental health difficulties.

Following the Royal College of Psychiatry's recommendations (PDF, 1Mb) that university students should have more mental health support, there are now 120 UMHAN members working in universities across the UK.

Most are social workers, occupational therapists, mental health nurses or psychologists like Luke, and have moved through the NHS into careers helping students with mental health problems.

Supporting the NHS through student mental health

The UMHAN network helps NHS GPs co-ordinate care for their student patients. "Many students are far from home, so continuity of care can often break down," explains Luke. 

Through liaising with the university mental health or disability team, GPs are reassured that their patients will receive a high quality of care while away from home.

Furthermore, the patients may receive specialist support from their mental health adviser that a GP may struggle to provide themselves. "Collaborative healthcare is very important," Luke emphasises. 

The UK-wide network allows people in Luke's position interact with other mental health advisers to share best practice examples from all over the country.

How mental health advisers enable joined-up care

The mental health advisers are a conduit between NHS, social services and university services. This can include referring a student for counselling and wider NHS services such as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT). "We work in a very integrated way," says Luke.

Dr Suzanne Edmonds, a GP practising at the university's medical centre, agrees. "At UEA there is a shared deep commitment to foster co-ordinated mental health support and wellbeing," she says.

"Students in difficulty are encouraged to make personal contact with one or more of the support services, who will work together to try to meet their needs within the context of a clear understanding of confidentiality. Our aim is to help all students meet their full potential both academically and on a personal level."

If a student needs funding for regular one-to-one support, the mental health adviser can help them apply for a Disabled Students' Allowance.

Mental Health and Wellbeing Day

In recent years, UMHAN has driven the annual University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day. This sees mental health fairs and stalls appearing at universities.

The activities on offer can range from presentations by NHS early intervention teams and eating disorder teams, to giving students the opportunity to explore creative therapies through art or yoga.

Above all, the fairs regularly highlight mental health and find ways to reduce its stigma and increase awareness.

"It provides a jolly, happy place to talk about mental health issues, and lets people know that they do happen on campus," says Luke. 

Article provided by NHS Choices

See original on NHS Choices