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Students and mental health isn't a new connection to make, with stress and anxiety being linked to university students for years. Law students especially have been renowned for experiencing a high amount of stress during their studies. But do universities have a duty of care to their students to support them through their time in education?
According to the government, universities owe a duty of care to their students to support them with any mental health problems during their time at university. This was mainly headed during the covid-19 pandemic, which reported record high issues surrounding mental health for students at university. However, the government also admitted that the factual basis of universities having a duty of care has not been “widely tested in the courts".
Well, that was the case until two months after that quote, in which the case of Abrahart v University of Bristol took place. This case followed the death of a student at the University of Bristol who'd taken her own life which, according to the parents of the deceased, took place following the decline of her mental health after being made to do examined oral assessments. However, the judge ruled that there was in fact no legal precedent in place that should require universities to take reasonable steps to avoid and not cause injury to their students.
I, as well as many legal professionals, find this ruling to be quite baffling. In what is of course my own opinion, the idea that an educatory body, which houses many people who've had to make a huge change to their life to be able to attend, owes no duty of care to prevent harm to their students is plainly wrong.
The idea that there's no legal duty of care doesn’t mean that universities completely ignore the subject – quite the opposite. In my research, I could find no university in the UK that doesn't have a dedicated wellbeing support team, and so certainly there's support there for the most part for those who need it. However, the existence of a support team or any kind of service does not guarantee that it'll be successful or effective in every case. This is proven by mental health issues of students becoming worse every year according to national statistics, despite the availability of these services. In fact, according to a survey by the mental health charity CALM, only 12% of students felt that their university handled mental health issues well.
In response to the increasing scrutiny on the topic of student mental health, the government increased funding for a wellbeing website ‘Student Space’. As a student myself, I can confidently say that I'd never heard of this resource before researching for this blog post. The government also recommended that £15 million be allocated towards mental health in the 2022/23 academic year by the Office for Students, but I couldn’t find any reports to confirm what was spent outside of £3 million towards Student Space.
With students now returning and starting university, there's again been a lot of scrutiny aimed at the student mental health crisis. I felt that this topic was an important one, as law students are renowned for being extremely stressed, and was one of the things that I was warned of when I told my friends and family that I'd be studying law at university.
There's certainly a growing need for more to be done to tackle student mental health, and hopefully is something which can be supported sooner rather than later.
Note from the LawCareers.Net content team: if you need support while at university, there are a number of places you can contact, including your university's support service, Nightline and Student Space. If you need support now, text SHOUT to 85258 to chat to a trained volunteer.