The mental health timebomb in higher education

SPONSORED: Mental health issues in higher education is going to be a big challenge for universities

By Toby Margetts ia Strategy Consultant at Squiz.

In 2016 the suicide rate of UK students overtook the suicide rate of young people in the general population for the first time ever. 146 students ended their own lives, representing a 56% rise since 2007.

It’s hard to say, for sure, why we are seeing this steady rise in student suicides but there is a widely acknowledged and proven link between poor mental health and suicide rates. There are a number of factors that are likely contributing to the general lowering of UK students’ mental health:

A generation of social media users

Many of today’s university students and graduates are the first to have had exposure to social media from school age. In a survey of 1,000 individuals from Generation Z, 41% stated that social media platforms make them feel anxious, sad or depressed. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter have strong links to anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues amongst users as they’re exposed to airbrushed and filtered versions of other people’s realities that don’t compare with their own.

Owning a home is a pipe dream for many

A report in the Guardian estimates that a third of millenials will never own their own own home. The same report suggest that half will be renting into their 40s and 33% could still be renting by the time they claim their pensions. Today’s students face the very real prospect of lifelong renting or long stretches living with parents and this is likely contributing factor to poor mental health.

Tuition fees are at an all time high

Students are being saddled with enormous debts and the bleak reality that they might never fully pay them off. Mintel’s Student Finance UK 2017 Report showed that 57% of students in the UK are worried about the level of debt they will have when leaving university, rising to 63% of women.

The graduate job market is more competitive than ever

High Fliers annual graduate market report, ‘The Graduate Market in 2018’ revealed that the number of graduates hired by organisations featured in The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers fell by 4.9% in 2017 this the first drop in graduate recruitment for five years and the biggest annual fall recorded since 2009. The same report found that employers in eight out of thirteen key industries and employment areas hired fewer graduates in 2017 than the year before.

Brexit is imminent

An increasingly uncertain political landscape is seeing many students – and young people in general – facing up to a reality outside the European Union with Brexit looming.  75% of those aged 18-24 voted against Brexit, clearly valuing the certain aspects of the EU such as the ability to live and find graduate roles freely throughout 28 member countries.

It should be acknowledged that many of the factors that are precipitating this steady deterioration in mental health and rise in student suicides are out of the control of higher education institutions. Universities have no influence over house prices and Brexit, for example. But universities do have a responsibility to ensure that they provide adequate support to their students.

First and foremost this is an ethical consideration. It should be the responsibility of universities (and any other service provider) to recognise customers that might be struggling with mental health issues and to proactively provide assistance to them, simply because it’s the right thing to do. The altruism attached should be ample incentive, however higher education institutions face a further reward in terms of student retention. Happy, mentally healthy students are undoubtedly more likely to complete their courses, achieve higher grades and contribute substantial amounts of money in tuition fees compared with those that drop out.

Student retention, alongside student acquisition and student engagement is one of the most important objectives for many universities. Any modern student retention strategy will need to consider the mental health of its students as a key component to ensuring students remain in their studies and perform to the best of their abilities.

So what does such a strategy look like? On a practical level here are some ideas on how universities can better support their students’ emotional wellbeing

Data-backed diagnosis

Data stored in CRMs combined with AI data analysis tools can produce remarkably accurate assessments of how likely a student is to drop out of university. Students, of course, drop out for a variety of reasons, many of which aren’t linked to mental health, but by knowing that a student is at risk of dropping out, universities can put measures in place to engage with the student and to determine whether mental health is a contributing factor. As data analysis gets more sophisticated, it will be able to identify students that are exhibiting mental health issues and action can be taken.

Student counselling services

Fortunately the stigma attached to mental health issues is diminishing quickly and students are far more likely to report problems when they have them. Ahead, the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability, said a 46% rise in the number of students with mental health conditions in the last academic year was most likely linked to improved supports and reduced stigma. Universities must provide accessible counselling services on both a virtual and real-world basis that give students an outlet to talk openly about their issues.

Anonymous helpline

For those that want more privacy, an anonymous helpline should be made available that allows students to discreetly get in touch and seek help.

Mental health as a key part of a content strategy

Any university content strategy should include an approach to tackling mental health issues. Finding online support through the university website or other portals will often be the first port-of-call for students seeking help and the content, usability and user-experience of the site should be good enough to direct students towards the information they need as quickly as possible.

A nice example of a university doing this well is the University of Northampton, that have an entire blog dedicated to improving students’ mental health.

Student-staffed outreach programmes

Universities have always used their current and past students to showcase to prospective students what life could be like at the university. Customers are generally wary of organisations trying to sell them things, whether it’s education or ice cream. For that reason, student-staffed support services are likely to be more trusted, relatable and more widely used by those in need.

In conclusion it’s clear that tackling mental health issues in higher education is going to be a big challenge for universities. Those that do it well not only fulfill a duty to their students but will also likely improve their retention rates, boost their revenues, bolster their reputation and become more successful organisations as a result.

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

Toby Margetts is a Strategy Consultant at Squiz. He has over six years of experience working in many disciplines including digital strategy, UX, content, and creative processes. He is responsible for gaining a deep understanding of clients’ needs, the needs of their users and the marketplace, enabling strong planning and creative outputs that meet the project goals and objectives.