Students in Scotland are plagued by a mental health crisis spread across all universities and colleges, yet the tertiary education system – deemed “broken” – is too underfunded to provide a remedy.

In 2018, the Scottish Government committed to providing more than 80 additional counsellors in Further and Higher Education over the following four years with an investment of around £20 million.

Funding began in 2019 and was set to conclude in April last year.

After months of rigorous campaigning for permanent funding, students have secured a “one-off” grant worth £3.21 million through the Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Transition Fund.

The Transition Fund is used to support the institutions’ counselling provisions or other initiatives, like Student Wellbeing Officers or online mental health resources.

This fund will expire at the end of this academic year.

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“Crises stacked upon crises”

By late 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic had not only impacted students’ education but also their mental health.

A Thriving Learners survey revealed that out of 15,000 students from all 19 Scottish universities, 74 per cent reported feeling low and 45 per cent had experienced a significant psychological issue that they felt should be professionally addressed.

Student voices reflect the challenges.

Amelia Perry started studying Art History at the University of St Andrews in 2020, soon after the first lockdown. It was a “tough introduction” to university. Amelia had already grappled with mental health in school and contacted Student Services during her first week at St Andrews.

She said: “I just remember the waiting time being so long. You were booking appointments for two months in advance which, if you need that immediate help, waiting that long is not great.”

Eliot Wooding-Sherwin, a fourth-year Law student at the University of Stirling, used the university’s mental health services when he joined in 2019, but was on a waiting list for six months.

He said: “Particularly this year, and the year before, the services are so much better than they were a couple of years ago.

“They increased the number of mental health support staff that the university had. In previous years, we only had one or two.” There are over 18,500 students at Stirling.

Staff are also seeing challenges. A Glasgow lecturer, who did not wish to be named, noted that lately, students have been dealing with “crises stacked upon crises”, resulting in “a steady increase” in them seeking mental health help.

They said: “We've had the impact of the pandemic, but also the cost-of-living crisis and the housing crisis and other really compounding pressures.

“[Mental health services] are really important. The thought that there wouldn’t be available counselling services is a deeply worrying prospect.”

“Students are in a horrific situation”

Eliot Wooding-Sherwin was involved in the NUS Scotland campaign that won students the additional £3.21 million.

“I’d like to consider it a win, but that’s not what the goal of the campaign was. It was to secure constant funding for mental health services.”

Still, Eliot is proud of achieving “a small win” – even if it was just for a year.

He said: “Students are in a horrific situation at the moment. We’re always viewed as this weird section of society, where it’s like: ‘You're a student for a bit and you're going to have horrible housing conditions, be treated terribly and have a massive workload, but none of us are going to take you seriously. Then you'll come out of it and you'll be fine.’

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“We don’t have to be living in those conditions. No one should be living in poor standards of housing. No one should have massive workloads and not have that support.”

The Scottish Government is investing over £290 million into mental health services this year to help tackle waiting times and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

The Government has previously reported that poor mental health and wellbeing costs the Scottish economy an estimated £8.8 billion each year.

The mental health crisis has also taken its toll on university staff, as more than 6,700 staff members have taken sick leave due to stress or other mental health problems since 2018.

Axed funding will affect “vulnerable members of society”

Students and staff are concerned about the consequences for their mental health when the Transition Fund expires.

“I think the biggest impact is that we will lose students,” the unnamed lecturer said.

“There are students who have complex issues. They might be from non-traditional backgrounds and they might have experienced mental health issues all their lives. These services are a really important safety net.”

Eileen Imlah, the branch secretary of Further Education Lecturers Association, said she continually feels stressed and overwhelmed due to “the unrelenting pressure [of] funding cuts."

She said: “Many students drop out of courses because they cannot balance the stress of studying when dealing with all the other stresses in their lives.

“Many staff across the sector leave or cut their hours due to increasing workload and pressure. The recurring stress relating to the uncertainty of pay and jobs and the pressure to maintain high achievement for students is not currently recognised or addressed but needs to be.

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“The impact of cutting the funding will affect some of the most vulnerable members of society.”

Eliot continued: “It’s a hypocrisy of Government. They need to continue funding education. The SNP are very proud that they’ve brought in much higher numbers of working-class students into universities.

“When you're not providing the financial and emotional support to those students, they will leave. We won’t be able to afford it for our mental well-being.”

The Glasgow lecturer believes that bigger universities are partially responsible for the mental health of their students and staff.

They said: “The impact of mental health can be so corrosive and destructive. Students can't complete assignments or they've fallen behind.

“Equally for staff, there's an increase in pressures with workload and [an] increasing need to get mental health counselling. The university can do something about that – improve the working conditions – which would negate the need for [more counselling].”

Ena Saracevic from Glasgow Clyde College hasn’t used the mental health services her college offers but likes the security of it being available.

She said: “The Government needs to focus on putting student mental health first. Mental health support is crucial for a good education, and it’s important that it’s accessible to everyone.

“Mental health support shouldn’t be a one-time thing – it’s something that needs ongoing investment and attention.”

Amelia Elizabeth, an MA Psychology student from the University of Aberdeen, thinks it’s “heartbreaking” that the insufficient funding is keeping the Government from helping more young people.

She said: “The improvement of one mental health scheme should not come from the detriment of another. Hopefully one day the Government will invest satisfactory and increasing amounts in both mental health areas, student and otherwise.”

“The cut not only removes options of support for students but could also cause a knock-on impact, where students will see the Government’s retreat from this project and take it as a sign that their mental health is not cared for.

“Having a soft place to land will always be more comforting and safe than a free fall.”

A spokesperson at Universities Scotland said: “Universities will never be a substitute for the clinical services that should be provided by the NHS, but they do offer a range of much-needed preventative measures and interventions. The need to support students with their mental health is as great now as it ever has been. There’s no doubt about that amongst students or front-line staff.

“It’s been tremendous to have financial support from the Government to create additional counsellor posts. It was clear from the outset that would be time-limited, and the end of that funding is now in sight.

“When Government cuts to core university grants coincides with the end of the funding for counsellors, it is not clear how universities are expected to continue the same level of mental health support for their students going forward. Universities are committed to giving students the best possible support, but Scottish Government cuts to core university funding make everything more difficult.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Ministers have fully delivered on the Programme for Government commitment to support colleges and universities to introduce more than 80 extra counsellors to support their students’ mental health with an investment of almost £16 million over four years since 2019/20.

“Additionally, we are investing over £3.2 million this academic year in a Student Mental Health Transition Fund to help institutions diversify their support offering to students and integrate with local services.

“This one-off funding is designed to ensure colleges and universities can transition to a future position where student mental health and wellbeing is fully embedded as a shared commitment between institutions, Scottish Government, NHS Scotland and other key partners – which meets student needs and integrates with local services.”