With 2.3 million individuals in the UK in higher education and 95 recorded university student suicides between July 2016 and July 20171, the need for adequate support within the HE sector is ever-growing. But this is increasingly becoming a challenge with budget restraints and cuts to funding a risk to even the most basic of services.
It’s no wonder the mental health epidemic the UK is facing has hit university students hard, with staff feeling the pressure, too. The average student now graduates with debts of over £50,000, meaning the grades they achieve matter more than ever to kickstart their career. Students are under pressure to achieve the highest grades while having the time of their lives, but face stresses from all sides, with coursework, social commitments, financial worry, and being away from home all potentially impacting on their mental health and wellbeing.
The need for support
With mental health there is rarely one cause – or one solution – so each instance needs to be looked at separately by all those involved in support. While mental health is normally complicated and often requires input from medical professionals, there are ways in which universities can help.
Are there financial problems and, if so, can the student be directed towards appropriate funding streams or money advice services? Is living in catered or non-catered accommodation likely to be triggering when it comes to a student recovering from an eating disorder? Where the workload involved is causing problems, what can be done to enable individual tutors to recognise there is an issue and to have the autonomy to act on it in a way that will benefit the student?
Half of all mental health problems are established by the time someone is 14, according to the Mental Health Foundation. However, for undergraduates this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been formerly identified, that they have an effective treatment plan in place, or that the big adjustment of moving away from home and beginning the next stage of their lives won’t prove to be a rocky time for them.
Encouragement to register with a GP, and a regularly updated and easily accessible list of all services within the area (such as helplines, counselling, drop-in services and crisis centres) is a must for all universities. If a student approaches someone and the university itself cannot offer a service or support that would help, it should be able to signpost them towards someone who can.
A National Union of Students survey revealed 78% of respondents had experienced issues within the previous year – and 54% did not seek support. A total of 40% were nervous about what support they would be offered and a third said they didn’t even know where to get help from within their university [or school2].
Sadly, this reflects a broader societal problem of stigma surrounding mental health issues. According to MIND, one in four people is affected in any given year, so with 2.3 million undergraduates and postgraduates3, this equates to almost 600,000 students experiencing a problem this year. This is exactly why universities should be doing their utmost to drag mental health out of the shadows.
Normalising the conversation surrounding the emotional wellbeing of students and staff isn’t something that can happen overnight, but it can happen with the right training for everyone working on campus. Stories of students and staff who have earned their degree, flown high in their respective careers and achieved despite (or because of!) their mental health should be shared in places where they will be seen by as many people as possible.
Encouragement for students to come forward if they are struggling is important not just once they begin their studies but beforehand, too. Efforts to increase numbers of those disclosing on their UCAS application that they have a mental health issue need to be supported by universities with as much information available on websites, social media and at open days as possible to educate students about what support they can expect to receive. This also enables universities to be as forewarned as possible about the level of support that may be needed in the following academic year.
There has been an increased use of ‘buddy’ systems within universities, often spearheaded by students themselves in a bid to offer support to peers who might be struggling. Students feeling able to open up to someone is a great start, but their ‘buddy’ should not be their sole port in a storm because it has a host of implications, especially if symptoms worsen.
The sad facts are 95 university students tragically took their own lives in the year leading up to July 2017. So the impact on the buddy’s own mental health and studies needs to be investigated thoroughly, because the repercussions of a peer’s suicide would undoubtedly be an even deeper emotional turmoil for those involved with trying to support that individual as a mentor or buddy.
Encouraging students to access help and normalising the conversation about mental health can do a lot to get universities going in the right direction, but what’s available once someone asks for help? There is a huge disparity between universities when it comes to spending on services. But this must change – and can, if all universities commit to learning from best practice and making mental health spending their priority.
It’s time for universities to work collaboratively, with each other and with the country’s leading mental health experts and organisations, to improve the mental health of the next generation.
Kevin Rogers is CEO of Health Paycare, a not-for-profit health cash plan provider. For information, please visit