Today is World Mental Health Day, a day to raise awareness, educate, and advocate for change. The theme for 2021 is ‘Mental Health in an Unequal World’. There’s that word again – unequal. On a global level, inequality in mental health is glaringly apparent. The World Health Organization reports that 80% of people experiencing mental health conditions live in low income countries that have little to no access to affordable, quality mental health care. Unfortunately, access to mental health support can be determined by where we live, and who we are. In 2020, a Mind report revealed that Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic communities are at a higher risk of developing a mental health problem, but are less likely to get support.

Tackling inequality, albeit in a particular setting, is TASO’s vision, and on World Mental Health Day I couldn’t be prouder to work for this organisation. Having experienced my own mental health struggles while at university, I’m well aware of the additional strain this places on a student, and how easy it can be to fall behind and underachieve without the right level of support. I am fortunate enough that I could access quality help readily whilst also feeling supported by my family and friends.

Over a number of years working in the education sector I have experienced first-hand just how fortunate a position I was in. As I trained as a counsellor to support students at an international college, I observed how the stigma around mental health meant that students from some cultures found it too shameful to talk about and even more difficult to seek help for. As a Widening Participation Outreach Practitioner, I witnessed a young carer struggling to apply to university whilst they juggled their own mental wellbeing and their worries about the person they cared for. To be part of a team that can help to reduce inequality in higher education in vital areas such as mental health means more to me than I can express.

And TASO’s mission in this space is more important than ever. Evidence illustrates how the prevalence and impact of mental health varies significantly for different groups of students. A 2019 OfS brief shows that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, from minority ethnic backgrounds, or who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to experience mental ill health. Delving deeper still, the dataset revealed that of full-time students who reported having a mental health condition, Black students had the lowest attainment, continuation, and progression rates of any ethnic group. It is clear then that mental health has a disproportionate impact on groups that are already disadvantaged or underrepresented in higher education. This is the reality of mental health in an unequal society.

In discussing mental health, it would be unwise of me to ignore the elephant in the room. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the population’s mental health, and students are arguably a group that have been especially affected. A survey from Student Minds revealed that 73% of university students reported a worsening in their mental health as a result of the pandemic, and whilst lockdown may have eased, students are still likely experiencing anxiety over their curtailed education and diminished job prospects. Recent evidence from the British Psychology Society shows that, again, it is communities that are already disadvantaged that have felt the biggest impact of the pandemic on their mental health.

Whilst one cannot disagree that the impact of COVID-19 has been negative, it has undeniably moved along the narrative on mental health and the need for action to reduce social and economic inequalities when planning for the future. Higher education providers will be more aware than most of these challenges and TASO’s current invitation to tender is centered around summarising and triangulating evidence to understand how mental health is driving or perpetuating equality gaps in HE outcomes. From here, we hope to ensure that resources are directed into the interventions that work. Just like opportunities to succeed should not be stifled by physical health, we must find out what works to stop mental ill health creating a barrier to long term success.

Sarah Chappell is a TASO Research Officer with a background in mental health and widening participation. She will be leading on research projects related to our new mental health theme.