Sophie Janus explores what lies behind the recent rise in student mental ill-health
There has been a recent focus from the UK government into the issue of mental health difficulties amongst university students. Analysis from the Institute of public policy research suggests that the number of first year students disclosing mental health issues was almost five times higher in 2016 than in 2006, increasing from 3000 to 15000 cases a year. Similarly, in Scotland, students accessing mental health support services increased by 47% between 2011/12 and 2014/15 (NUSS, National Union of Students Scotland, 16 May 2016). A rise that threatens to overwhelm university services unless action is taken to address it.
Experts are unsure whether this trend reflects greater pressures on university students in more recent years, a greater awareness of mental health issues in students causing more cases to be reported, or a combination of these factors. Whatever the cause, the rising trend in reported mental illness cases come with devastating statistics. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that rates of student suicide have risen over the past 10 years peaking at a total of 95 reported deaths between 2016 and 2017.
4.7 suicides per 100,000 students in England and Wales in 2016-17
Whilst this rate is lower in Scotland at 3.1%, this still equates to 140 students completing suicide in Scotland between 2009-2015 (ISD, 2017). These figures may not accurately reflect the situation however, as this does not include deaths in college students or those not yet officially declared as suicide. It is clear that universities can do more to support their students’ health.
What’s causing these trends?
There is rarely a simple explanation for a rise in reported mental health trends. Today’s university students are graduating into a fast changing world, where one honours degree is no longer enough to secure employment in an increasingly competitive jobs market. Students are expected to leave university with a top class degree as well as a wealth of extra-curricular work experience in order to compete for sparse positions amongst thousands of other graduates.
This puts enormous pressure onto students who worry that they are racking up staggering debts with no certainty of a secure job upon graduation. A professor at the University of Bristol also believes concerns about issues such as climate change and Brexit are putting pressure on his students. “There was more certainty in our time whereas students today are graduating into a world where change is the norm.” Studying and graduating in an ever changing, ever-competitive environment with many novel pressures is thought to be a strong contributing factor to the rise in reported mental health issues.
Students from the University of Bristol, which has recently experienced a cluster of seven suicides in the past eighteen months, also cite social media as another form of pressure. There is a worry that students are presenting a very positive façade of how well they are coping with university pressures on social media, rather than talking about their worries and seeking help.
“The reality is, with the instant gratification of Instagram, everybody’s got a face on — nobody knows what’s really going on”
– quoted 20 year old student Anna from Bristol (Financial Times, 2018)
However a study by UniHealth, an online student wellbeing and health network, reported that students were four times more likely to seek help through social media or their smart phones than through seeing a counsellor. Reflecting this modern digital culture services such as Breathing Space and Samaritans are developing a web based instant messaging service. The hope is that this method will encourage more students and young people to access the support available by communicating in a way that they feel more comfortable. Universities should follow this example to make awareness of and access to their mental health support services more up to date and appealing to use.
What is being done?
Recently the Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has stated that universities are not doing enough to support their students, and that student mental health needs to become a top priority. One key measure being considered is asking students if they would like to opt in to an alert system whereby the university is given permission to contact their parents in an emergency, should they find themselves experiencing a mental health crisis during their studies.
Until recently, under data protection laws universities were not authorised to share students’ personal data, leading the parents of students who have committed suicide complaining about being kept in the dark, and fearing they could have helped their children if they had known more.
The minister also announced plans to develop a basic criteria that all universities would be required to meet in order to demonstrate to prospective students and their parents that the university would be able to support their mental health needs throughout their studies. Institutes, which achieved and exceeded the required criteria would be recognised and rewarded to encourage this.
The Department of Education are also investigating links between university health services and the NHS, and are looking into the transition between school and university; a time when students are most vulnerable to taking their own lives. Prof Steve West the chair of the Universities UK mental health in higher education advisory group, quoted: “Universities cannot address these complex challenges alone.”
Partnership working with students, staff, government, schools, colleges and employers, the NHS, local authorities and third sector organisations is vital if we are to help students and staff to thrive.