Lately, issues surrounding mental health have taken centre stage in our society. The efforts of NGOs, healthcare services, and government bodies have made a significant impact by sensitising people’s perception of this topic. Yet, despite this increased coverage and seemingly positive steps towards dispelling stigma and taking preventative action, poor mental health and suicide has become an ever-mounting crisis. Universities and higher education colleges in particular have faced pressure to make drastic changes after figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed a doubling in the number of student suicides – 52 in 2000/1 to 95 in 2016/17. In total, approximately 1,330 higher education students took their lives within this period, of which 686 (66%) were male and 452 (34%) were female. Across the UK, many universities are struggling to provide adequate mental health support, with demand for services increasing 50% over the last 5 years as more and more students are presenting symptoms of high levels of stress and anxiety. To tackle this silent epidemic, more focus needs to be placed on preventative measures such as early intervention and the promotion of healthy thoughts and behaviours.
Suicide attempts can be triggered by a number of things, and a stress inducing environment such as university can act as a catalyst in such cases. Young people are placed into completely new surroundings without their usual support network, and are left to fend for themselves in a world without constant guidance and supervision – a newfound freedom and independence that can be utterly isolating and overwhelming. Alongside the expectation of good grades and securing a decent graduate programme to make the huge costs of education worthwhile, students are navigating a difficult social landscape as they form new relationships and attempt to work out their place in the world. The struggle of finding a healthy work-life balance is further exacerbated by the drinking culture present at universities, as the pressure to go out and make friends overtakes the need to rest and study. This culture is almost competitive in nature, as people smugly discuss their vibrant social lives, excessive drinking habits and lack of studying. Couple this personal and academic stress with demanding extracurriculars, part-time work and potential pre-existing mental health conditions, and it’s easy to understand how mental health can quickly deteriorate.
Following the release of the ONS figures, the Department for Education (DfE) announced plans for a University Mental Health Charter to develop new standards to promote student and staff mental well-being for which universities will be given recognition for adhering to. Furthermore, the DfE is working on ways to ease the transition from school to university life and exploring the possibility of allowing universities to share information on student mental health with parents or a trusted person. Higher education providers themselves are taking action, with 10 large scale projects currently underway at universities including Lincoln, Keele and Nottingham. At Northumbria University, an early intervention scheme is being developed to reduce student suicides using data analytics. The University of Bristol – which has come under extreme fire after experiencing 13 student suicides in just 3 years – has announced that it is investing £1 million per year to introduce Student Wellbeing Advisors into each academic school to be the first point of call for students requiring additional support, as well as investing in Students’ Health and Counselling Services to meet the increasing demand for support. However, students have been quick to point out that this figure pales in comparison to the £300 million being spent on the new campus, Temple Quarter. Given the university’s reputation for inadequate support (including housing 65 students in residences up to 30 miles away from the main campus), the funds ought to be allocated to improving provisions for current students rather than drawing in higher numbers of vulnerable people into an unfit environment.
Though I believe the answer to mental health problem lies in prevention over intervention, higher education institutions first need to deal with the vast numbers of students unable to access the services they need for months at a time. This requires significant investments into increasing the numbers of specialist mental health staff, and also in helping and encouraging students to access services in the first place.
A UniHealth survey showed that 37% of students did not know where to seek help, and this problem needs to be addressed on both a national and institutional level. At university this can be done through issuing clearer guidelines on the exact process of getting help, as well as making it easier for students to report fellow classmates they may have concerns about (as friends are more likely than tutors to notice concerning behaviours). The process of accessing support also ought to be made less laborious and bureaucratic in order to not deter students by requiring them to fill out dozens of forms before being granted an appointment. This is particularly important for students applying for the Disability Student’s Allowance for mental health conditions. For illnesses without physical and quantifiable costs and disadvantages, the application for support can be, at best, confusing, if not completely traumatic. Finally, universities ought to consider whether staff and students’ time alike might not be better spent discussing how to prepare for life after university and promoting positive psychology, rather than holding 2 hour workshops on note-taking or how to use JStor.
While for many the freedom, diversity and inclusivity to be found in university provides an exciting gateway to a happier future, it is imperative to remember that students are still at a highly critical and stressful point in their lives, and need support in navigating their way through.
Sarah Maccallum-Orr is a member of the Global Health policy centre’s working group.
Links to mental health services:
- King’s College London services: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/counselling
- Student Minds: https://www.studentminds.org.uk/findsupport.html
- PAPYRUS Prevention of young suicide: https://papyrus-uk.org/help-advice-2/
- Beat Eating Disorders: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services
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Appleby, Louise. ‘How a better understanding of student suicide numbers can help prevent more’. Office for National Statistics. 12 July 2019. https://blog.ons.gov.uk/2019/07/12/how-a-better-understanding-of-student-suicide-numbers-can-help-prevent-more/,
‘Bristol University students housed across border in Wales’. BBC. 12 September 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-49672905.
Department for Education. ‘New package of measures announced on student mental health’. GOV.UK. 28 June 2018. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-package-of-measures-announced-on-student-mental-health.
‘Estimating suicide among higher education students, England and Wales: Experimental Statistics’. Office for National Statistics. 25 June 2018. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/estimatingsuicideamonghighereducationstudentsenglandandwalesexperimentalstatistics/2018-06-25#analysis-on-higher-education-student-suicides-in-england-and-wales.
Steafel, Eleanor. ‘Do British universities have a suicide problem?’. The Telegraph. 1 April 2017. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/do-british-universities-have-suicide-problem/