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Supporting student mental health and wellbeing: a guide for UCL staff

This guide is designed to help you broach conversations about support and direct students to the correct mental health and wellbeing services if needed.

  1. Introduction
  2. Spotting a student who might need support
  3. Talking about mental health and wellbeing
  4. Signposting the support available
  5. Referring a ‘Student of Concern’ 
  6. What to do in a crisis

1. Introduction

Whether you’re a Personal Tutor, Teaching Administrator or research supervisor, you're likely to be advising students on a broad range of issues and may be the first person they are directed to.

They may face economic, social and academic pressures that influence their wellbeing. And you could be the first person to whom they disclose a sensitive issue.

On average, three quarters of adults will experience the first symptoms of mental illness by age 24. Early intervention can make a great difference, preventing early signs from developing into severe and complex issues. Whatever your role, there are many ways in which you can help.

2. Spotting a student who might need support

You can support students by making sure they feel heard and have their concerns validated. 

But equally, it is very helpful to be able to:

  • recognise when they could benefit from specialist support 
  • identify a crisis situation when immediate action is required.

In some cases, you may not notice any symptoms, or you might not have met the student before. However, for most students you’re familiar with, you can begin to recognise small changes or have a feeling that ‘something is not right’. 

Some of the common signs that a student might mention, suggesting they may be in need of further support, include:

  • Sleep or appetite changes
  • Changes in mood or appearance 
  • Drop in functioning – this may be demonstrated by reduced attendance, or assignments being handed in late or not at all
  • Problems with concentration – students may report staring at a computer for hours and not getting anything done
  • Increase in alcohol consumption or drug use
  • Depression, anxiety or panic attacks.

Signs of a potential crisis include:

  • A student mentioning suicidal thoughts, along with plans and the means to act on these, or immediate plans to harm themselves
  • A student mentioning an intention to harm others
  • Extreme emotional distress

3. Talking about mental health and wellbeing

If you have a feeling something is not quite right, talk to the student.

You will not make things worse by asking. Raise your concerns clearly and directly; asking about mental health and wellbeing is a positive thing.

Here are some tips for having what might be a difficult conversation:

Listen and communicate non-judgementally

It is important students are able to express their concerns without fear of judgement or unfair treatment.

To ensure you understand what is being said, you may want to repeat back the student’s words, e.g. “I am hearing you’re finding it difficult to be motivated and have been feeling very low, is that correct?”

You may be surprised by what they’re expressing or deeply saddened, but try to avoid expressing negative emotions or reactions. You can express empathy by using phrases like “I’m sorry to hear you’ve been experiencing this, it must be really difficult”. 

Listen to hear and understand 

You are not expected to have all the answers, but to reassure the student that effective help is available.

Encourage the student to share as much or as little as they want, but do not press them to provide details if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.

Do not promise to keep information confidential 

If the student makes comments that indicate a potential risk of harm to themselves or others, including suicidal thoughts, do not agree to keep this confidential.

Encourage the student to reach out to support services, and you may want to submit a Student of Concern referral if you are worried about the risk of harm.

If the student expresses immediate plans to harm themselves or others, then this is a crisis and the student should receive urgent support.

Remember, you do not have to have the conversation if you don't feel comfortable doing so and you can always signpost to others.

Help the student to understand their options for support at UCL and elsewhere

Unless the student is in crisis, try to empower them to make their own decisions.

There’s a wide variety of support available at UCL and externally, and students might benefit from speaking to any of a wide range of individuals, depending on their circumstances.

Help the student identify their personal support network and some of the potential support avenues available.

Look after yourself

Make sure that you take care of yourself and remember that support is also available for staff through Occupational Health.


4. Signposting the support available

A student experiencing wellbeing difficulties may feel that speaking with you is enough. In this case, you can always encourage some of the other support below or self-help. Put a date in the diary to check in with the student again and see how they are getting on.

The UCL Student Support and Wellbeing (SSW) webpages have lots of resources to help students stay healthy and look after their wellbeing. Many students feel better after making changes to their lifestyle, such as increasing physical activity, eating healthily, doing something creative and being mindful of their alcohol consumption. However, some students may benefit from support and advice.

Services from UCL Student Support and Wellbeing (SSW)

  • Disability, Mental Health and Wellbeing Support: A team of advisers able to help students overcome barriers to their learning related to mental health and wellbeing and/or disability; offers a drop-in (no appointment needed) every working day; first port of call if the student is unsure; longer appointments available for more complex issues; support available over the phone; arranges for reasonable adjustments to be put in place, encapsulated in the Summary of Reasonable Adjustments or SoRA
  • Student Psychological and Counselling Services (SPCS): UCL’s on-campus counselling service; students must complete a separate registration online; any students interested in counselling should also be directed to the drop-in above, as advisers can offer support in the interim
  • Care First: UCL’s partner out-of-hours support service, with support available to all UCL students over the phone and online
  • Chaplain and Interfaith Adviser: Offers support for any issues related to religion or faith.

The student's GP

  • Students should keep their GP informed of any mental health difficulties; students should be encouraged to register with a GP if they haven't done so already (they can find their closest surgery on the NHS website); many students can register with Ridgmount Practice, UCL's partner GP surgery.

Other sources of support at UCL

Other sources of support from outside UCL

  • The Samaritans: 24/7 listening service
  • Nightline: Listening service for students, run by students; open 6pm–8am every night of term
  • Specialist support workers: A wide variety of organisations offering support for specific issues, including Rape Crisis and SurvivorsUK for students affected by sexual violation, and Gendered Intelligence for students transitioning gender
  • External therapists: Referrals are often made through a GP
  • Friends and family

5. Referring a ‘Student of Concern’

There may be some circumstances where you want to make SSW’s Disability, Mental Health and Wellbeing Support team aware of the student’s support needs by completing a Student of Concern referral. 

Complete a Student of Concern referral online if:

  • A student is mentioning thoughts of suicide or a rapid decline in mental wellbeing 
  • A student is currently self-harming
  • The student discloses they are at risk of harm from themselves or others
  • The student may pose a future risk to others, such as if they mention thoughts of harming others with no intentions to act on them or paranoid thoughts

Please discuss this referral with the student and agree a plan of action together.

Student of Concern referrals to SSW are followed up by the Disability, Mental Health and Wellbeing Support advisers within 24 hours during the week. If you are unsure about whether to refer a student or not, you can contact SSW by email or over the phone to discuss - full details are on our contact us page or in the sidebar of this page. 

What happens after a student has been referred to SSW?

Advisers will help students consider a number of options if they are having issues with their mental health and wellbeing.

This may include, but is not limited to: 

  • Speaking to their GP
  • Considering psychological support and what is available to them
  • A Summary of Reasonable Adjustments (SoRA), if related to disability
  • Interruption of study (please direct students to the interruptions guide if they are considering a break from study)
  • Study skills tutoring or mentoring if they have a specific learning difficulty (such as dyslexia, dyspraxia) or a diagnosed mental health condition
  • An appointment with a specialist adviser if they have been affected by sexual violence 
  • Mentoring with Gendered Intelligence if they are transitioning gender or experiencing gender identity issues
  • Accessing local NHS services or community support

6. What to do in a crisis

A mental health emergency should be taken as seriously as a physical health emergency.

If a student is in crisis, PLEASE ACT IMMEDIATELY. 

If a student has plans and the means to act on suicidal thoughts and is worried about keeping themselves safe, you should:

  • call emergency services; or 
  • ensure the student is escorted to A&E (the closest A&E to the Bloomsbury campus is at UCLH by Warren Street station)

If the student is not immediately worried about keeping themselves safe, but requires urgent support, you should:

  • help them contact their GP for an emergency appointment; or 
  • call NHS 111 for guidance and/or an urgent appointment with the closest available GP 

Once the student is safe, you can submit a Student of Concern referral, so SSW are aware and can offer the student support.