Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Mental Health

Overstretched NHS services are sending suicidal students back to universities for help

BMJ 2020; 368 doi: (Published 04 March 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;368:m814
  1. Anne Taylor, freelance journalist
  1. Falmouth, Cornwall, UK
  1. annetaylor.writer{at}

UK universities are seeing a big rise in numbers of students presenting with mental health problems. Anne Taylor finds they are often seeking the specialist help they can’t get in the NHS

While Isobel White was struggling with depression and anxiety at university, one of the encounters she had with a range of health professionals stands out. After checking that she had a number for emergency services and the Samaritans in her phone, a mental health nurse sent Isobel away, asking her to see how she felt in six weeks. The nurse also suggested that Isobel keep a box of fabric in her room to distract her from harming herself.

Isobel had started experiencing mental health difficulties just before university, but it took three years to find help. She eventually recovered after six months of intensive cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behavioural therapy at a private hospital paid for by her father’s health insurance.

Isobel feels extremely lucky. A fellow student in a counselling group she attended at university, also struggling to get specialist care, took their own life. “That really hammered home to me the consequences of people not getting what they need,” says Isobel, who is now studying for a master’s degree.

“Due to a lack of resources, [NHS services] are trying to push more and more people back into the university system, which isn’t designed for people with serious complex issues,” she adds. “It’s quicker for us to do that than be on the waiting list for an NHS appointment.”

Filling a gap in NHS care

As the student population grows, and larger numbers seek help for more complex mental disorders, many universities are stepping in to fill a gap in NHS care and are employing mental health nurses, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and specialist GPs, prompting concerns about the emergence of a parallel …

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