Mental Health at the University of Oxford – An update from Oxford SU

CN: Mental health, self-harm, eating disorders, suicide.

Student Mental Health Workshops

Following our work getting the University to act on the student mental health crisis by working on groups including the Mental Health Taskforce, we’d like to invite you to two workshops to join us for an update and to help shape our policy work on this important area going forward. The events are open to all students.

Workshop 1: Monday 10th May 3-5pm. Oxford SU workshop on student mental health: What’s the student mental health crisis and what are we doing about it at Oxford?

Get your free ticket at: 

Workshop 2: Tuesday 18th May 2021 3.30-5.30pm. Oxford SU workshop on Student mental health: What’s next for Oxford and how do we work together to tackle the student mental health crisis?

Get your free ticket at: 

Students across the UK, including at the University of Oxford are facing an ongoing mental health crisis. At Oxford SU we’ve been actively lobbying and working closely with the University to improve mental health services for students, including via the University’s Mental Health Taskforce (MHTF).

We know there’s a long way to go to improving support services and the experience of students at the University of Oxford and we’ll continue to represent students and secure the change that is urgently needed.

What’s the Oxford context?

  • Since March 2020 Oxford University’s counselling service has experienced an average of 15% increased demand on 2019 levels.
  • Demand for the University counselling service increased by 100% on 2019 levels during July and August 2020.
  • According to Oxford SU’s Wellbeing Consultation in June 2020, there has been a 42% increase in students concerned about a “lack of suitable environment/resources”, 29% increase in students struggling with “isolation/loneliness”, and 23% increase in students concerned about the future.


What are Oxford SU doing about mental health at Oxford?

At Oxford SU we’ve highlighted these concerns constantly throughout the past few months on the range of committees and groups that we represent students on. Working with colleagues across the collegiate University, we have been an integral part of the University’s Mental Health Taskforce which has reviewed existing provisions for students and sought to identify and fill gaps. Our work on these groups alongside the efforts of staff and students have secured several changes for student Mental Health support at the University of Oxford:


Mental Health Wins – Over £400,000 extra invested by the University and Colleges in Mental Health at Oxford

We have worked in partnership with the University and colleges to make the case for additional resources and staff support to meet unprecedented demand from the covid student mental health crisis. We are pleased to see the University have committed to a significant investment over £400,000 to meet demand. Changes from the funding secured includes:

Expanding the Counselling Service to help tackle the student mental health crisis by recruiting two full time equivalent counsellors.

Making the University Counselling service more inclusive and accessible to students from under-represented backgrounds by hiring a counsellor who is specialised in supporting black students and making plans to ensure all students feel welcome at the Counselling service.

Improving support over the 2020/21 Christmas Vacation by providing additional counselling availability over the Christmas closure period.

What else have we done on the Mental Health Taskforce?


We’re pleased that the Mental Health Taskforce has been recommissioned to focus on additional issues of student mental health including considering how to integrate care across colleges, University and the NHS. We look forward to continuing to work with partners across the collegiate University on this key issue.

What’s our plan, vision and response for the next phase of our work with the Mental Health Taskforce?

The Oxford SU Sabbatical team has found the Mental Health Task Force (MHTF) a welcome experience and a refreshing change in the dynamics of how systemic welfare needs are coordinated across the University. The agility of the group and quick responses from its constitutive members has meant that this group has achieved more in its short existence than most Sabbatical teams can dream to see achieved in their terms. We’re particularly thankful to the chair, Sir Tim Hitchens, for his deft steer and clear vision for the group.

While the MHTF is now entering its second phase, as the taskforce outlined in its first set of findings, permeant governance changes are needed. We believe the University needs a new central university committee with a focus on mental health, and the Conference of Colleges Welfare Forum needs to become a decision-making body. Any new governance structure needs to have fully funded policy support with at least one full-time member of staff devoted to policy support. There needs to be a clear senior staff lead on student and staff welfare, potentially at the pro VC level, who can take ownership of these issues and has more time to devote to them.

We’re glad that the MHTF has recognised that staff and student wellbeing and mental health support do not have an antagonistic relationship, but rather are two sides of the same coin. Adequate student mental health provision is dependent on the wellbeing of staff, as evidenced by the current crisis. To ensure both needs are being met, the University needs a clear owner of the Mental Health Charter and a timelined, funded implementation plan.

It’s incredibly heartening that there is now a call for the University to provide world-class mental health services, on par with its exceptional education. For too long welfare and mental health provisions have been underfunded and undervalued, with a prevailing attitude that stress is an integral part of an Oxford education. Thankfully, this paradigm is beginning to shift, and we look forward to continuing to work with our colleagues on integrating the lessons from the pandemic into a funding model for centralised mental health services that can meet the demand of students.


What’s the national context?

In general: According to Student Minds, a third of students have a mental health problem whilst at University. Anxiety and depression are the most commonly experienced mental illness in the student population, but students also experience eating disorders, self-harm, OCD, bipolar disorder, psychosis and personality disorders.

Over recent years, personal well-being of undergraduate students has declined (Student Academic Experience Survey, 2020 (PDF, 700KB)). On all four domains (life satisfaction, life worthwhile, happiness, low anxiety), undergraduate students report substantially lower levels of well-being compared with the general population aged 16 to 24 years. (ONS)

During the pandemic:

According to the National Union of Students:

  • Over half of students (52%) say their mental health is worse than before the pandemic.
  • 20% of students have sought support for their mental health.
  • Only 29% of those that said their mental health is worse have sought support.
  • Of those that received support 3 in 5 were satisfied with it.
  • Over half of students found their caring duties increased during the pandemic.
  • Over two thirds of students’ rate campaigning for mental health support as a top 3 priority for Student Unions to campaign on.  


Students have worse mental health than the general population

According to the ONS: 57% of students reported that their wellbeing and mental health had become slightly or much worse since the start of the autumn term.

Students reported lower levels of life satisfaction, life worthwhile and happiness, and higher levels of anxiety, compared with the general population. (Student Covid Insight Survey/Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, Nov 2020)

Over two thirds (74%) of 18-24 year olds say lockdown has made their mental health worse, compared with 60% of adults. (Mind, 2020) Over 4 in 5 (82%) of young people had a lower than average wellbeing score.


More students reported feeling lonely:

A survey by WONKHE and Trendence found that in October 2020, compared with May 2019, the proportion of students who felt lonely daily or weekly is much larger (50% compared with 39%), and a larger proportion of students do not feel part of the university community (50% compared with 40%). This is more likely for students living in halls (59%), and least likely for those living with their parents (44%) or in their own home (37%; this will likely comprise mature students).


Over three quarters of 18–24 year olds (78%) said that feeling lonely made their mental health worse during lockdown. This compares to 59% of those aged 25 and over (Mind, 2020

(Mind, 2020)


What are the key themes?  

Race Equality and Mental Health

People from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities living in the UK are more likely to: be diagnosed with mental health problems yet are less likely to receive early mental health support. When BAME people can access mental health services, they have worse treatment outcomes. Black people are more likely to be detained, secluded, and restrained.

People from BAME Communities have been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, with combined health, economic, and social consequences. For example, almost one in three (30 per cent) BAME people* said problems with housing made their mental health worse during the pandemic, compared to almost one in four (23 per cent) white people, whilst employment worries have negatively affected the mental health of 61 per cent of BAME people, compared to 51 per cent of white people. (Mind, July 2020).

Oxford SU is playing a key role in the University’s Race Equality Taskforce and working with a range of student groups to ensure all aspects of the student experience, including mental health and wellbeing are considered as part of the taskforce.

Graduate students 

  • ‘The general wellbeing of DPhil students seems to decrease with time spent on the course (lower in year 4 than in year 1) while the anxiety levels are on the rise (4.84 in year 1 comparing with 5.87 in year 4). Those who are in the taught part of their course report the highest scores for wellbeing and the lowest anxiety.’
  • PRES respondents were asked to rate four wellbeing items from 0- Not at all to 10- Completely. Figure 12 shows the average score for each item among all PRES respondents. On a scale from 0 to 10, respondents generally score around 7 for the majority of the wellbeing items. The anxiety item is negatively coded, hence the lower the score the less anxiety felt the day before.
  • Figure 12. Average scores (0-10) on wellbeing items

(The Oxford Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2020, 691 responses from DPhil students, fieldwork 6/3/20-18/5/20).

Oxford SU were pleased to work with the University to expand the covid-19 hardship fund and add a grace period for hand-ins due in Hilary 2020, providing wider support to the University’s graduate students.


Key issues for students include eating disorders, substance misuse and self-harm.

Eating disorders: Almost nine out of ten (87%) of those currently experiencing, or in recovery from, an eating disorder reported that their symptoms had worsened as a result of the pandemic (Beat, 2020). As The Oxford Student and Oxford Beat Society have highlighted, there are serious concerns regarding the University of Oxford’s support for students with eating disorders.

Drugs and Alcohol: Over a third (36%) of adults and a third (34%) young people were drinking alcohol or using illegal drugs as a lockdown coping strategy. This rises to 43% of 18–24 year olds (Mind, 2020). This is supported by NUS research which found that although partying and going out has decreased, drinking has increased for around a third.

Self-harm: Over a quarter of young people are self-harming to cope. Young people are more than twice as likely as adults to have used self-harm as a coping strategy (28% of young people vs 11% of adults).

One in three young people (33%) with experience of mental health problems self-harmed to cope during lockdown.


What are our next steps: 

We continue to meet with University and College leaders as part of the Mental Health Taskforce and other meetings.

Over Trinity Term we will be running a number of workshops, open to all students, to help shape the next stage of our mental health campaigning work. Look out for more information about these and how to sign up at the start of Trinity Term.

Role of Oxford SU

  • Representation: Oxford SU is the recognised representative voice of students at the University of Oxford, our purpose is to improve the overall experience for current and future students. What do you think? Tell us your thoughts on what we should be doing on student mental health. Email us at or come to student council!
  • Advice Service: Student Advice is the only free, independent, impartial advice and information service exclusively available to Oxford University Students. Any current student can get in touch anytime for support on a range of issues including wellbeing and financial.


Work to improve student mental health care is an incredibly tough job and we want to recognise and thank that large group of people who have and continue to make this their priority. In particular, we want to thank the members of the University’s Mental Health Taskforce, Student Wellbeing Subcommittee, Education Committee, Silver and other covid response groups.

We also want to thank the Conference of Colleges Welfare Forum, Oxford SU’s Disabilities Campaign, Oxford Beat Society, former Sabbatical Officers at Oxford SU and Brookes Union, and the hundreds of students continually campaigning on these issues including in Oxford’s student media. We would like to recognise the hard work of professionals in colleges, the NHS, the Counselling Service and other wellbeing services.

*’Mind recognises the limitations and problems of using catchall umbrella terms such as ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethic (BAME)’. We are always open to being challenged and are committed to doing better when it comes to understanding and addressing matters of discrimination and privilege. In order to make conclusions which can only be drawn from a robust sample size, for the purposes of presenting the findings of this research we have included respondents from different ethnic groups which fall under the BAME umbrella. However we recognise that there are distinct and unique identities and challenges facing different communities referred to as ‘BAME’, which can be obscured in research that aggregates non-White groups together as ‘BAME groups’.