As thousands of 18-year olds in the UK have begun or are about to begin their university experience, starting with the infamous ‘freshers’ week’, now is an opportune moment to discuss the mental health crisis in universities.
Why are university students of particular concern? Given that the majority of mental health problems develop by the age of 24, university students are a group at high risk of having mental health problems.
Starting university is a major life transition, and can be both exciting and overwhelming. Not only must students manage multiple academic and social pressures, they must also navigate developmental challenges as they transition to adulthood.
Students today are faced with unique concerns compared to students in the past. This includes the stress of unprecedented financial burden from student loans and increased tuition fees, and the potentially negative consequences on wellbeing of the use of digital technologies and social media.
Recent statistics reveal the extent of the student mental health crisis in the UK. In 2015/16, over 15,000 first-year students in UK universities reported that they had a mental health problem, compared to approximately 3,000 in 2006.
This increase in disclosure is mirrored by a 94% of higher education institutions reporting an increase in demand for their counselling services. Despite the surge in help-seeking behaviour, there is evidence to suggest that there are many more students who do not seek treatment for mental health problems.
There are a range of implications of worsening mental health among students. Poor mental health has been associated with poorer academic outcomes, as students tend to be less able to effectively manage stress and pressure and, thus, their ability to perform given tasks productively is diminished.
Why it’s a problem
They may also be more likely to drop out of university; statistics highlight a 210% increase in university dropouts among students with mental health problems from 2009/10 to 2014/15. Of even greater concern is that student suicides have increased by 79% from 2007 (75) to 2015 (134).
Indeed, student mental health is being pushed higher up the government’s agenda. In June of this year, universities minister Sam Gyimah announced a new package of measures, including a University Mental Health Charter and a working group to support students transitioning from school into university.
What can be done?
While this package is promising and reflects a wider commitment to improve student mental health, a more proactive approach needs to be taken at government and NHS level, and at the university and higher education level.
This includes universities adopting a whole-university approach to student mental health, which should be informed by best practice. Universities and higher education institutions should seek to implement currently available programmes to strengthen the current evidence base and identify what refinements are required.
Through improving and strengthening this research base, better, evidence-based investment decisions regarding mental health provision in universities can be made.
Addressing mental health in students can have a positive effect on mental health in later life. By ensuring student mental health is treated as a societal concern, we can encourage early intervention and action.
By intervening early, at a critical transition point in young people’s lives, we can avoid the long-term risks associated with poor mental health, which can have far-reaching consequences for the next generation.