Brain Sciences


PsychUP for Wellbeing fast-tracks student access to mental health support

3 March 2021

UCL’s Head of the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences is championing fast-track access for students to get the mental health help they need.

Psych-up for wellbeing

Professor Peter Fonagy OBE, co-founder of PsychUP for Wellbeing, marks University Mental Health Day on 4th March by focusing on simplifying access to help students get the mental health support they need quickly.

UCL’s mental health strategy is actively applying its research expertise to strengthen support offered to students and staff. The aim is to help everyone realise their academic or career potential and promote positive mental health and wellbeing. The focus includes creating a supportive culture where mental health problems are accepted and not stigmatised. In addition, UCL provides guidance and awareness training to UCL academic staff involved in the care of others – as well as deploying where possible, trainee mental health professionals to deliver support.

Pandemic’s impact on mental wellbeing

The prevalence of mental health problems in young people in the UK has been growing significantly, Professor Fonagy explains. 20 years ago, approximately one in ten young people had mental health issues that needed healthcare intervention. Before the COVID-19 pandemic this number had gone up to about one in four (source: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity trends). However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of young people struggling has escalated.

Professor Fonagy said, “Now with the pandemic, it is young people in particular who are suffering.  The young thrive on social interaction. It is essential for their sense of self and wellbeing - in a way that is not necessarily the case for older generations. The young need to see people face-to-face and socialise. This is less critical for older people.

“Then with lockdown restrictions, came the requirement to send students back home. So now we are asking ourselves - what will the effect of this isolation on their wellbeing be?” 

While data are not yet available, Professor Fonagy doubts that the outcomes are beneficial.

“On a practical level we have all been able to keep going, benefiting from developments in digital technology, but we know that technology has its downsides.  It cuts people off from face-to-face interaction which risks the mental health of the young in particular.” said Professor Fonagy.

PsychUP for Wellbeing

PsychUP for Wellbeing (Psychology Informing University Practices for Wellbeing) is a programme of work which was set up to improve mental health in universities, by developing the knowledge base, designing models of care and supporting partnerships working between university and NHS services, to simplify access to vital support services.

Co-production is at the heart of the programme and embedded in all its activities, with students involved in conducting research, consulting on projects and contributing to its strategic direction. Led by Professor Peter Fonagy and Steve Pilling, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Clinical Effectiveness, and co-ordinated by Dr Laura Gibbon, PsychUP for Wellbeing is steered by an Advisory Board comprised of students and  senior staff.

Navigating to wellbeing – wherever you are

“UCL has a rich  array of mental health wellbeing programmes. However, it is one of the biggest universities so it can be difficult for students to navigate the system. This is why we are focusing on encouraging students to connect with NHS services. Working with UCL Partners we are designing a pilot initiative to reach out to our students. I believe it is important to simplify the messaging and processes for them to get the appropriate help they need.” Professor Fonagy explains.

Professor Fonagy said, “Right now we aren’t there to be able to see our students physically and so this process of navigating them in the right direction is more important than ever. Many are feeling stressed and anxious and may not know where to turn to. Universities have a responsibility not to wait until the students in need reach out. We need to be there to put them in touch with the mental health services available.”

With the development of a new ‘e-triage’ system in discussion, Professor Fonagy said: “The NHS and the Government are making resources available regardless of where your GP is. There is concerted and collaborative action taking place to make the process and strictures that have previously surrounded access to mental health resources, more flexible. We are creating an ‘e-triage’ system. We are telling students that wherever they are they are able to get treatment easily. We are improving access to psychiatric services and the Government has invested in increased resources. This is a great step and real progress.”

Peer power

Research conducted within PsychUP for Wellbeing has identified a need for more peer support. Student researchers interviewing student participants for the IMPACTS project have found that students really value support from peers where it is available - and wish there were additional ways to link up with their fellow students.

Peer support (support by and for people with lived experience) can be a powerful means of help. Students Minds have recommended the approach, whilst acknowledging the challenge of running safe and effective peer support programmes in a university context. UCL Partners are currently adapting the national framework for Peer Support Workers for the university context, to fill this gap. PsychUP for Wellbeing are working with Students’ Union UCL to pilot an initiative to train peer link workers to support their fellow students over the exam period.

Professor Fonagy said, “Peer support is crucial. We know that students are often well placed to help other students. We can do a lot to support students, but there is also a great deal that students can do to help their friends – and we have made resources available to guide peer-to-peer support. We are telling students to look for the signs of distress and are showing them appropriate, evidence-based support that they can put into action.”

Staff wellbeing - for student wellbeing

While the focus of messaging around University Mental Health Day is on students, the importance of keeping staff mentally healthy is also recognised. As part of this support, UCL recently issued guidance to employees on UCL staff wellbeing.

Professor Fonagy said, “Without mentally healthy staff, you won’t have mentally healthy students. During the pandemic, many staff have gone out of their way, sometimes at a cost to their own mental wellbeing, to help their university community and they deserve our support too. Steps we have taken include encouraging them to take time out and ringfencing time for themselves and make support readily available.”

Driven by a personal journey

Much of Professor Fonagy’s motivation to help young people suffering from mental health issues comes from his own personal story. As a young Hungarian refugee sent to live in Britain, he experienced such depression and isolation in his late teens that he had planned on ending his life. He acknowledges that if he was assessing himself now, as a clinician, he would be very worried about him, because he knew exactly how he planned to take his own life.

He had the fortune to be sent to the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families in London for help. This was the turning point in Professor Fonagy’s life and now as the Chief Executive for the charity, he wants to share the support he received with others.

Professor Fonagy said, “Much of my drive comes from my own personal journey. The Anna Freud Centre saved my life. The therapy I received put me on the right track and gave me the confidence to interview at the Psychology Department at UCL. This was an interview that changed my life. UCL gave me a chance that turned my life around. I feel great gratitude to both the Anna Freud Centre and to UCL - who took a chance on me.

“I am acutely aware of what it is like to be young and to feel depressed. I know this from the inside. And I am now determined to use my professional energies and knowledge to help other young people. UCL saw something in me and gave me a chance. My loyalty to these two institutions is undivided. I have an incredible debt to repay. I was given a chance. I say, give young people the best chance we can.”