The Higher Education Minister Sam Gyimah wants to establish an ‘opt-in’ service for students to voluntarily give universities the contact details of their parent or guardian. The details would be used if the student faces a mental health crisis.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Mr Gyimah stated that one in four students are currently accessing or waiting to access counselling services. “It would be irresponsible for any institution to turn its back on a student in need and further steps need to be taken to tackle the problem”.
Reactions towards the proposal have been mixed. Many believe that students need to act like independent adults, removing the need for parental involvement. For other students, life at university provides an escape from difficult family circumstances. Therefore, contacting parents could worsen domestic relationships, should student mental health problems stem from family difficulties.
Another argument is that it would be near impossible to enforce such measures in universities across the nation. Mr Gyimah made no comment on how he proposed to ensure the service is rolled-out nationwide.
To what extent should universities act in loco parentis? As institutions, universities provide educational certificates; their role does not involve filling the place of a parent. However, Mr Gyimah stated that the transition period of ten weeks from school to university is too short for an individual to progress into adulthood.
He added that students were expected to deal with the responsibilities and pressures of independent study and living, while not receiving the same level of pastoral care readily available in school.
A question also remains about young people of the same age in employment; is it up to their employers to contact their parents should they face a mental health crisis? The latest governmental figures from July 2017 show 95 students committed suicide in that year. Suicide in the student population is not more prevalent than in the general population. Mr Gyimah still believes more steps can be taken in order to prevent or minimise this problem.
An investigation by Think Tank, IPPR, outlined a growing number of students who suffer from depression and anxiety. They found the increase was largely caused by increasing financial and academic pressures. The number of students with mental health problems at universities has risen to its highest level.
Last year 15,395 students disclosed their mental health problems in their first year – a fivefold increase in a decade. Universities are ‘overwhelmed’ by the number of students seeking help. Some suggest that an increased awareness of mental health issues as contributing to the rise in mental health disclosures.
Following the May 2018 suicide of Ben Murray, a Bristol University student, Ben’s father began calling for the rules to be relaxed around data protection. He wants parents to be told if students are struggling. The University is working with Mr Murray to establish an ‘opt-in’ contract to contact parents, similar to the scheme Mr Gyimah is proposing.
Is the University of Manchester doing enough to help students with mental health problems? It is clear that this is a very sensitive issue, that has created divided opinion regarding solutions among the student population. The question of contacting parents might lie in the grey area, but what is most definitely not in the grey area: universities could always do more to protect their students.
The University of Manchester states that it “will promote awareness of, and a positive and proactive approach to, mental health difficulties”.