A growing number of undergraduates are reporting mental health problems, but what can be done to support them?
Today is University Mental Health Day. It also happens to be Self-harm Awareness Day and Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Three particularly significant awareness campaigns within the mental health calendar, and it’s interesting that they all happen to coincide with one another.
For me, this is a particularly poignant thing - as I struggled with my mental health at uni, experiencing issues with disordered eating, as well as self-harm. But, like so many other students experiencing difficulty, I didn’t reach out for help.
According to a telling study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), student suicides are at their highest rate since 2007. The report also shows that 2015, the year I graduated, was a particularly significant year: a record number of students with mental health problems dropped out of university and 134 students took their own lives.
Of course, we’re familiar with the statistics: one in four of us will experience a mental health problem each year - and that in itself is a significant proportion of society. But what’s worrying is that mental health problems - particularly suicides - are at record high levels amongst university students.
What issues are students facing?
UPP’s annual Student Experience survey showed that almost nine in 10 (87%) of first-year students find it difficult to cope with social or academic aspects of university life. Other troubles that featured significantly included isolation (44%), balancing work and study (37%), financial difficulties (36%) and living independently (22%).
In addition, as course fees have continued to increase over the last six years, there seems to be a correlation between this and the pressure that students place on themselves to succeed in their studies. In fact, almost six in 10 students report that this made it difficult for them to cope.
Counsellor Peter Klein provides some insight: “Students have been putting themselves under increased pressure to achieve near perfect results. This increase in standards makes revision or any kind of study so much more daunting as any mistake can lead away from this unhelpful ideal.
In addition, students are studying for much longer hours. Having unhelpfully high standards also makes it so much harder to attain a healthy level of self-esteem. This will cause students to overestimate challenges in their lives and make them underestimate their ability to deal with these. Excessive standards increase anxiety and stress levels in a time which is already meant to be a stressful period in a person's life.”
In connection with this, a 2016 YouGov survey of Britain’s students found that more than a quarter of students (27%) report having a mental health problem of one type or another. And that’s only the students who feel able to disclose their struggles. It also found that, interestingly, female first-year students are significantly more likely to say they have mental health problems than males (34% vs 19%), whereas four years previously both were equally likely.
Are mental health problems increasing?
Of course, it’s not clear whether mental health problems are increasing, or whether it is just the conversation that’s getting louder; it’s likely that students have always had mental health problems, but only now is society beginning to fully understand the problem at hand.
Students have been putting themselves under increased pressure to achieve near perfect results and are studying for much longer hours
Certainly, the conversation around mental health issues has increased hugely, even in the few years since I graduated. So, it’s not necessarily that the overall number of students with mental health problems has changed significantly in recent years, but it’s arguable that the way students are responding to their worries is making it harder for them to cope. And, still, many students are suffering in silence.
Why are students not accessing support services?
Well, the IPPR revealed that 94% of higher education institutions have seen a jump in demand for counselling services over the past five years, while 61% had seen demand jump by more than a quarter.
According to Peter Klein, “Many universities offer counselling facilities. Often, however, these facilities are staffed by counselling students or don't have enough staff present in order to give students the attention they deserve.”
So, perhaps students are trying to access support - but universities are not yet able to meet the demands.
One student that had been struggling with her mental health whilst at university told Happiful: “The University said they didn’t have the resources to support me, so I had to leave. And, when I made a case to stay, they replied stating that I hadn’t utilised the support offered to me. But the truth is, I’d been in a mental health unit - I was clearly unable to use the services they had on offer.”
What is currently being done to tackle the problem?
Despite the high number of suicides across universities, only 29% have an explicit strategy on student mental health and well-being, according to the report.
Bristol University hit the headlines earlier this year, as the eighth student within 18 months took their own life. In response to this, the university's Vice-Chancellor, Hugh Brady, has introduced a "whole institutional" model of pastoral care to tackle student mental health and suicides and will be spending £2.9 million as part of a wellbeing strategy. The hope is to add a new tier of professional support with full-time trained staff in “student support centres”, available around the clock, 365 days a year.
What else needs to be done?
Universities across the country should be taking note, to take better care of student wellbeing. Universities UK, the representative organisation for the UK's universities, has said that student mental health is "a strategic priority" and has introduced its own framework to guide universities when embedding mental health resources across their campuses.
Last year, Liz De Oliveira's daughter, Lucy, took her own life whilst studying for a degree in Child Nursing. She gives her advice to Happiful readers:
“To any young people, particularly students, suffering from depression or any other form of mental illness, I say please speak up. Please understand that no course of study, or indeed anything else, is worth taking your life over. If you are not coping, then just leave. I would prefer to have Lucy doing anything she wanted with her life, so long as she was still here with all of us who love her.
Believe me, your friends and family would feel no differently. To anyone who may be concerned about someone’s mental health, please talk to them and listen to the answers. Please don’t be dismissive of what they are saying - ensure they get the appropriate help.”
We need to take swift action to prevent even more deaths - and to prevent more students from suffering on their own. Whether you’re a student, a member of support staff, an academic, a senior university leader, an alumnus, or even a supporter of mental health awareness, we all have a part to play to cultivate a positive mental health community at university.