The University's Mental Health Task Force is chaired by Sir Tim Hitchens, President of Wolfson College. Here Sir Tim outlines the demand on welfare services as a result of the pandemic, and how the Task Force will support the needs of Oxford students during this time.
We all know that the pandemic has brought mental health challenges for students at Oxford this year. The combination of COVID restrictions and larger than usual numbers of undergraduate and graduate students, in a setting which is fast changing and uncertain, has produced a difficult mix. The University has seen a significant uplift in demand for our welfare services, both in term-time and vacation; and a blurring of the lines between the two. With the country in lockdown, and a constrained winter break ahead, achieving mental balance can seem as distant as next summer.
The collegiate University knew this would be a challenging period, and as term started set up a Mental Health Task Force, bringing together expertise from the NHS, the Counselling and Disability services, colleges, students, divisions and several others. It will work through to the end of January.
The University’s immediate response to the challenge has been to ratchet up support for students. £200,000 of extra funding has been provided at short notice and we now have more people providing more services in the Counselling and Disability Advisory Service, including over the Christmas vacation. The University has also subscribed to the 24/7 online mental health service Togetherall, available to all students and staff.
But we are also looking at some of the other areas of immediate need identified by our students.
The NHS is under intense stress, with acute psychiatric care provision a particular challenge. The Task Force is seeking to understand exactly what provision is available, ensure students and colleges understand the pathways to what care there is, and consider ways the collegiate University may plug some of the gaps.
Welfare teams in colleges are under particular strain, including student-led welfare teams, and the Task Force is looking at ways the Counselling Service can provide them with structured clinical supervision and reflective practice, in collaboration with the college.
Frontline welfare practitioners are not always clear how to manage particular difficult but common scenarios, and we’ll be looking to provide much clearer step-by-step guidance.
There are some tools we already have to support student welfare – like the Fitness to Study programme – which may come into its own during this crisis.
And there will no doubt be other ideas we will encounter as we go.
Finding a way to live through a pandemic is difficult; everyone finds it a challenge. Mutual support, kindness and tolerance go a long way. But when those problems become too difficult to handle, colleges and the University are there to provide support. The Task Force exists to bring practitioners together, identify practical solutions, and find ways to bring all of Oxford’s 24,000 students safely through this winter.
For more information about the mental health support available to students throughout the pandemic, please visit the welfare and wellbeing page on the COVID-19 response site.