The Mental Health Crisis in British Universities

8 out of 10 students have reported that they have experienced mental health issues over the course of 2015, according to a survey carried out by the National Union of Students (NUS). Whilst this statistics is extremely troubling in itself, it is unfortunately just a small detail of a much larger issue. NHS England have reported that three quarters of people with mental health issues have received zero support at all – despite the fact that a third of respondents to the NUS Survey saying that they have experienced suicidal thoughts. These statistics give way to a much larger picture – there is a mental health crisis in our universities.

I spoke with Sean Walsh, who is a third year Journalism student at Portsmouth University on why he felt that so many students suffer from mental health issues: “I think university students are particularly prone to mental health problems, because it is such a massive step up from anything we have ever done before, you are thrown in at the deep end and it does feel like it’s sink or swim, it is easier to become isolated and feel alone than when you are at home”.

Sean isn’t alone in finding isolation to be a big issue at university – The Guardian’s annual Student Experience survey revealed that 44% of students felt the same way. In that same survey, 9 in 10 (87%) of first year students found it difficult to cope with the social or academic aspects of university life. There are many reasons as to why the social aspects of university can be extremely daunting: these times are advertised as the best years of our lives – and there’s a pressure to make them seem that way, there is also a large pressure to spend Freshers’ week (or fortnight, depending on the university) out drinking, and students who don’t drink may feel as though they are going to be left out if they don’t partake. People also feel pressured to immediately click with other people in order to not miss out, creating friendships out of desperation to have someone which could cause a split further on. Alternatively, if people don’t make these connections right away then they can become extremely withdrawn. For many, they will also be leaving behind a group of friends that they have known for a large portion of their lives in order to study, socialise, and perhaps live with complete strangers.

Alice Ierace, a third year Journalism student at Portsmouth University talked about what she thought were the reasons as to why so many people struggled: “Being away from home is not easy, then you add the stress of living on your own, having to cook, clean, shop, work, probably find a part-time job, making sure you meet all the deadlines with somewhat good marks all whilst trying to have a social life and meet people.”

In The Guardian’s annual Student Experience survey, a large portion of students felt the same way:

  • 37% reported balancing work and study to be an issue
  • 36% reported financial difficulties were causing them to struggle
  • 22% reported difficulty with living independently

Whilst students may like their newly found independence provided to them by attending university, this independence comes with a price. For many, High School and College provided structure and endless amount of homework as means of revision, university doesn’t provide this. Students are expected to learn how to create their own timetable and allocate themselves time for revision as well as choosing what to revise. It can be easy to get distracted with their new location – new places to explore, new bars to drink in, or new shops to check out. Learning how to structure a timetable for perhaps the first time can be daunting – especially with such a pressure to fit in and have a good social life whilst also maintaining good grades. Additionally, some students will be learning to cook for the first time, or applying for their first job. All of this can add to their stress, especially if they are a long way from home.

For many students who have previously relied on their families’ routine to structure themselves around, they may find that meal times are irregular and bedtimes can often become a quick power nap in-between studying and lectures. These changes could impact both their physical and mental health, making it harder to attend lectures and perform well. Others may have been pressured into studying by their parents, and now it is up to them to decide when and what to study. Alternatively, people may have gotten away with not studying throughout school and find that they don’t know how to study or how long for. People who have a lower income may also feel pressured into missing studying (or even lectures) in order to work – this can cause people to fall further and further behind, making getting back on the bandwagon in regards to work incredibly overwhelming.

I spoke to Patrick Tatarian, who is the lead on union development and one of the student union officers at Kingston University on how universities can support their students better: “I would personally say that the University could do more to support students who have mental health issues. When students approach Student Wellbeing for support, usually they only provide the student with no more than six counselling sessions at fixed times which a student is expected to commit to if they want to continue to be seen.”

The lack of free counselling sessions available to students can be a big issue at other universities as well, with some students reporting that they were told they would be better off going private as the university waiting list was over six months long. However, in order to access private counselling students are often expected to fork out a minimum of £20 an hour. This means that counselling is very inaccessible for a large portion of students, especially with those who are struggling with their finances. Additionally, students may not understand the counselling options available to them or understand how it might benefit them, as such they may be reluctant to fork out such money if they are worried it might not be right for them – further pushing people out of reach of help.

Whilst some universities do put on events such as Self Care Week, a lot of students are still left in the dark as to what help they can actually receive – in The Guardian’s annual Student Experience survey, a third of students reported that they would not know where to go in order to get mental health support. Additionally, 40% also said that they felt nervous as to what sort of help they could receive. It is clear that in spite of universities holding awareness events, more needs to be done in order to actually engage with students in a way that sufficiently raises awareness.

Mental health issues are much like other illnesses, in that if they are spotted early enough they can be dealt with much more easily and effectively before they become a bigger issue. Allowing mental health issues to grow sees a rise in workload (as students may become unable to attend lectures, seminars, study or complete assignments) as a result of struggling with their mental health, this increase in workload can add additionally stress which in turn creates a vicious cycle. Whilst it is great that universities have awareness events, they should be pushing students to actually attend them, or more readily advertising them and providing students with easily accessible resources. Further education into the symptoms of mental health issues is also essential, as some students may not even realise that they have an issue or that it is something they can get treatment for.

With the ever growing pressure for future generations to attend University and leave with a good degree, more needs to be done to stop this problem for growing. As the mental health issues that people can develop from attending University can impact them for years after their leave, and could be passed on to their children. Alternatively, it may mean that more and more people are pushed towards attempting suicide. According to a study by IPPR think tank 134 students killed themselves in 2015, and in the same year a record number of students dropped out of university. The same study also showed that through a survey conducted in 58 British Higher Education providers:

  • 94% had an increase in the demand of counselling services over the past 5 years
  • 61% had seen demand increase by a quarter
  • The number of students using or waiting to use counselling services reached highs of 26%
With Freshers’ perhaps the incentive should not be on encouraging students to experience being ridiculously drunk in each of the local nightclubs, but actually preparing them to live and study independently.