There is an ever-growing focus, through the UK media and elsewhere, on the nation’s mental health, and students – with their own particular set of pressures, from academic attainment and career prospects via accommodation and finances to social life and relationships – are as susceptible to mental health difficulties as many other social groups. So, how are the UK’s universities approaching this complex problem as it rises up the educational agenda?
First of all, it’s useful to know the parameters of the problem. Which aspects of their lives are causing most stress to today’s students? Are work, career prospects, accommodation, social life and money all roughly equal causes of anxiety, or do some of these dominate?
“I think the reality is that, although many of these things come into play, the true causes of student anxiety are actually more subtle,” reflects Gareth Hughes, Psychotherapist and Researcher at the University of Derby. “Many of our students are coming out of an education system, and a culture, that is almost designed to make them anxious.
“For example, our research suggests that pre-university students aren’t being helped to develop key practical, emotional and social skills, which undermines their confidence and resilience when things go wrong. When this is coupled with an education system geared towards surface learning and avoiding failure, students’ ability to manage themselves and their daily lives is eroded.”
More students than ever are worried about balancing their academic, social and work commitments
Gareth believes that most universities would acknowledge an increase in student anxiety in recent years – including a worrying rise in perfectionism, particularly in relation to academic work. “Many students are so afraid of failure that they are unable to learn and perform to their potential.” The introduction of tuition fees is also likely to have had an impact here: “Students now feel that they have less flexibility to get things wrong, when a mistake could cost them £9,000.”
Dealing with debt
Financial worries are clearly a key factor in the mix. Facilities management company Sodexo, which provides services on many UK campuses, last year undertook a major University Lifestyle Survey. This survey found that, although some 85% of students are happy with their quality of life at university, the increasingly competitive graduate market, rising costs of living and spiralling debt levels are leading millennial students to weigh up the pros and cons of university study very seriously.
The expectation of debt for UK students has skyrocketed since the 2012 introduction of the £9,000 tuition fees, with 66% of students expecting to leave university with debts of £20,000 or more, as against 30% four years ago. Many believe that they will rack up far higher debts, with 29% anticipating their debt at graduation to be more than £40,000. Worryingly, 40% said they did not believe their expected debt was acceptable in terms of their future career prospects – up from 28% in 2014 and 18% in 2012. These financial anxieties may worsen in coming years as maintenance grants are removed this autumn – a policy which could have major implications for how young people approach university.
“The Survey highlights the many different challenges facing today’s students,” says Steve Hawkins, Sodexo’s European Divisional Director of Student Living. “More students than ever are worried about balancing their academic, social and work commitments – the second biggest source of stress this year. Happily, though, most undergraduates feel well supported by their university, with 79% of respondents saying their institution offers somewhere to go if they are feeling stressed. Academic support rated most highly, while advice and support services related to financial and pastoral issues – for example, around feelings of loneliness – were seen as less accessible.
Only 1.6% of students disclosed a mental health difficulty to their university. – ECU, 2016
The holistic approach
So much for the challenges facing today’s students. But what are the solutions to these diverse stresses and strains? Gareth Hughes’ own university, Derby, offers a wide range of interventions and support, with a focus on helping students to develop their own wellbeing resources and skills. “We take a holistic approach to student mental health, recognising that physical, psychological, social and academic health all contribute,” Gareth explains. “Our interventions include Psychological Wellbeing (psychotherapy, interventions to help students overcome exam anxiety, public speaking anxiety, writer’s block, low motivation and sleeplessness); a psycho-education programme that introduces students to the holistic nature of learning and the importance of good wellbeing; and the Times Higher Education Awards-shortlisted Love Your Mind campaign, which raises wellbeing awareness and educates students through roadshows, leaflets, a self-help website and ‘bibliotherapy’ in the library.
Rachel Piper is Policy Manager at Student Minds, a mental health charity that equips students to bring about positive change on their campuses through campaigning and facilitating peer-support projects. “The student experience is unique and brings a range of both opportunities and challenges,” Rachel reflects. “While it’s normal to have ups and downs during university life, if a student is struggling to cope on a day-to-day basis, we would always recommend seeking support from the Student Support Services or mental health team at their university – or from their GP.”
Student Minds’ Grand Challenges report found that students are concerned about academic pressures, future employability and relationships, among other things. The charity’s Looking After A Mate study, meanwhile, found that friends often play a large role in supporting those students experiencing mental health difficulties – and that it is also vital that these supporters get the resources and information that they need, which Student Minds provides through its Look After Your Mate Training and its Guide For Friends.
Years spent at university coincide with the peak age of onset for a range of mental health difficulties. 75% of all mental health difficulties develop by mid-20s. – RCPsych, 2011
Elsewhere, acknowledging the crucial role that accommodation plays in the student experience, Student Minds have teamed up with UPP (designers and developers of high-quality and affordable student accommodation, academic infrastructure and support services) and Nottingham Trent University to create Student Living, a cross-organisational project to support student mental health. Recognising that it can often be accommodation staff – cleaners, night porters, security staff – who pick up on students’ mental health difficulties, the project includes a training scheme for frontline staff, along with peer support initiatives. Among other recent measures in the student mental health arena, Universities UK has recently embarked upon a programme addressing mental health and wellbeing in UK universities.
Approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year
Student Minds also provides a comprehensive list of solutions that students can access – including, of course, their university’s counselling service and mental health advisers, who will be able to coordinate support for students with mental health difficulties and act as a point of contact for the duration of their studies. Rachel Piper also recommends Students Against Depression, an award-winning website offering information, guidance and resources for students affected by low mood and depression; and Papyrus, the national charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide in the UK, which operates a national helpline, HOPELineUK.
Look after your mate
Student Minds also works in collaboration with universities’ own mental health services to ensure that its peer support programmes are embedded in the whole university approach. For example, at Southampton University, the charity’s Look After Your Mate programme has been rolled out to a number of groups including international students; its peer support programmes are integrated within the Students’ Union and wider university community; and the students also run a campaign group to help raise mental health literacy on campus.
Student Minds’ aim is: “to make conversations about mental health commonplace, equipping all students with the skills, confidence and knowledge to talk about their own mental health and support their peers.” Are these conversations happening as much as they should? “We are seeing a marked increase in the number of people taking an interest in students’ mental health,” Rachel confirms. Indeed, recent findings from Time to Change, which campaigns to end mental health discrimination, show a significant improvement in public attitudes and behaviours towards those with mental health problems.
Back in January, meanwhile, one effective short-term solution was found by the student property search engine University Cribs, which held a Puppy Petting Day at Cardiff University Students’ Union to provide students with a brief respite from the stress of university deadlines, while also supporting mental health charity Mind at the same time. In February, the initiative was repeated at UWE Bristol and Swansea University. Following the findings in the First Class report, University Cribs committed to further Puppy Petting Days across England and Wales in the run-up to end-of-year exams. Lucy Lloyd, Senior Community Fundraising Officer at Mind, said: “A Puppy Day is a great way to help students relax and unwind. We know the importance of people taking time out to unwind when they’re feeling under pressure.”
Are your health-conscious students getting their nutrients?
By Matt White, Chair of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) and Director of Catering, Hotel and Conference Services at The University of Reading
Trends come and go but one that seems firmly set to stay is the younger generation’s interest in clean eating. A report by PwC states that 47% of those aged between 18–34 have changed their eating habits towards a heathier diet. However, the high price tag that often comes with healthier food means that those living on a tight budget may not be getting all the nutrients they need.
Food poverty is a real concern amongst this demographic, with research by The Student Room showing that nearly a third of students have gone without eating for a day or more to help cope with the cost of living. Furthermore, 79% of students admitted that they had stolen food in the past to make ends meet. TUCO members are tackling this problem head on, by implementing initiatives on campus which make healthy food more accessible.
Offers like meal deals, which include a sandwich or salad, a fruit snack and a bottle of water for less than the price if purchased individually have proven popular with money-conscious consumers. Other initiatives include, opting for a ‘customers’ choice’ approach to serving meals, by allowing customers to return for seconds if needed, or choose between a larger- or smaller-sized plate. This helps to tackle the common perception that ‘value for money’ means plates piled high with food and encourages students to eat a well-proportioned diet.
In addition, our members are actively promoting healthy eating education on campus by adding ‘healthy heart’ symbols and information around salt, carb and protein content to product displays.
Through targeted initiatives like the ones mentioned above, HE catering outlets are playing an increasingly active role in the health and wellbeing of students and helping to accommodate the needs of those living on a tight budget.”
For more information on TUCO go to www.tuco.org. You can also follow TUCO on Twitter @TUCOLtd