Is there really a student mental health crisis?

Peter Eldrid, deputy head of student counselling services at Brunel University, looks at the facts behind the headlines

Headlines regularly highlight studies that imply that more and more students are suffering from mental health difficulties. 

While this is of great concern to parents, students themselves and the further and higher education sector, it is not the full picture.  

One measure of a society’s mental health is its suicide rate. 

The UK suicide rate fell between 1981 and 2007 and started to rise again, hitting a peak of 11.1 per 100,000 in 2013. 

Although this is substantially lower than the rates in the 1980s and 1990s, suicides among students have doubled in the last 10 years. Though awful for all involved, it is not as bad as in the general population where the suicide rate is twice that among students. 

So, being a student does not put you at more risk of being suicidal. What the media also overlook is that if you are a student, it may be easier to access help than for people who aren’t students.     

Universities are constantly looking for better ways to engage with their students. At Brunel University London, twice as many students seek counselling than they did 10 years ago, yet student numbers here have not risen during that time. 

We may well have improved our outreach and successfully raised awareness of how important it is to seek help as soon as things begin to feel wrong. 

Being a student does not put you at more risk of being suicidal

Broadening recruitment schemes has done a fantastic job of recruiting students with mental health problems who in the past, would have been rejected or may even have discounted themselves as student material. More mature students are going to university and we know the middle-aged are more at risk of suicide. All of these factors go some way to explaining the rise in the student suicide rate.  

Alongside changes in higher and further education, things are changing in society more generally. The stigma of talking about having a mental health problem shows signs of waning. We are not witnessing a snowflake generation, it is more the case that the stigma that existed stopped us noticing how bad the weather was in the younger generation in the first place. 

Previously, children and young people were not enabled to speak out about the trauma and mental health implications of sexual abuse. This too is changing, thanks to organisations such as ChildLine since the 1980s and more recently, campaigns like #metoo. 

Young men were particularly constrained by ‘lad culture’ which often deterred them from talking about their feelings. Now they are speaking out about, for example, the toll sexual abuse in football has taken on their well-being.

Sexual violence is now being taken much more seriously and greater opportunities to disclose have been created. Brunel recently led a European research and education programme for university staff on how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence. 

It is too easy to blame young people for not being resilient enough to cope with social media as the apparent cause of an increase in mental health difficulties. But these concerns need to be balanced against other societal changes. 

In my view, although there’s still a long way to go, it is more ok to say how you feel, to be open about your sexuality or to find groups you identify with. These things can all help to reduce the incidence or severity of mental health difficulties. 

There have always been mental health problems, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders, different sexualities, sexual abuse, depression, and anxiety etc. The difference is we are now more aware and more accepting and therefore more likely to be able to find ways to help. 

If one-in-four of us is likely to suffer from a mental health difficulty at some point in their lives, then it will never be far away. It will be us, it will be someone we know, someone in our family, someone we love. It is not just happening to other people. 

I am calling for more resources and awareness throughout society and not just in further and higher education. The prevalence of suicide and mental ill-health can be presented as relatively higher among students than in reality. 

Suicide prevention and maintaining good mental health should be everyone’s business, not just the preserve of those in the education sectors.      

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