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The impact on friends and family when a loved one takes their own life cannot be overstated, but rarely does such a tragedy make the national media, often only being reported locally. Many media outlets thankfully abide by the Press Association guidelines that they should refrain from reporting certain details about suicides, such as method and location, for fear that a particular place may become a potential high-risk site. However, the media being the media often cannot resist the ‘bigger’ public interest story and that is why earlier this year many of the national online media outlets published headlines similar to “Bristol universities rocked by EIGHTH student suicide in just 18 months”.

The various articles involved the apparent suicide of a third-year student at the University of Bristol’s Law School, the seventh student from the University of Bristol thought to have taken their own lives in an 18-month period. The article also tied in these suicides to an eighth student from the University of the West of England, although it must be stressed that none of the deaths are linked to each other and are individual tragedies. For someone who has seen the devastating impact suicide has on loved ones, I find it difficult to see the need to publish these sad individual events at all, particularly when they feature photos of the person who took their own life. Suicide can be an intensely private moment for the families involved, unless they choose to speak out themselves in the hope of emphasising the need to do more around prevention. In fairness to some of these media outlets, journalism is also about highlighting social issues and many ran their articles whilst drawing attention to the rise in suicide and mental health problems amongst students. So, did the press get this right, is there an increase, or was this just justification to run their ‘newsworthy’ story?

What is the current picture telling us about student’s mental health?

There have been numerous surveys, studies and statistics published, which have explored the issue of mental health amongst universities and students. Overwhelmingly, the findings reveal that suicide and mental problems have increased substantially amongst students in the last few years. Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that suicide among students in England and Wales has risen by over 50% in the last decade, whilst universities are also reporting that demand for mental health services and counselling, has also doubled in the same period. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPRR) published a report last year which identified that 15,395 UK-domiciled first-year students in the year 2015/16, disclosed a mental health condition, 5 times the number recorded 10 years earlier. They also found that in 2015, 134 students took their own lives, a record number, whilst 1,180 students who experienced mental health problems dropped out, a 210% increase on year 2009/10.

Other sources estimate that 1 in 4 students now suffer from some form of mental health problems. A recent YouGov poll reported that 27% of students had reported a mental health problem with female students more likely to disclose than their male counterparts. The same poll revealed that LGBT students were at a significant risk of developing mental health problems. Depression and anxiety were the most common forms of mental health problem with 74% of responses stating that they had experienced both.

A study by the National Union of Students (NUS) claimed that mental health amongst students was far higher than those reflected in the YouGov poll, reporting that in the year from 2015/16, 78% of students experienced a mental health problem, whilst one third experienced suicidal thoughts. The first figure is in-keeping with some academic research which claims 75% of people with mental health issues experience their first episode before the age of 25 years.

What pressures do students face?

For the majority of first year students the transition from school to university can be an extremely stressful period of their lives. Many enter with trepidation, finding it difficult to cope and balance the academic and often social demands that university life brings. Research suggests that 80-90% entering university experience anxiety. Studying, workloads, isolation, finance and social interaction are just a few of the concerns that affect that first year, and beyond.

The YouGov survey found that 77% of all students surveyed had a fear of failure, with 1 in 5 declaring that this was constant, never leaving them throughout their academic journey. 71% reported that the workloads were a main source of their anxiety and stress, with the prospect of finding a job after university second at 39%. Key factors impacting on student’s mental health may include:

  • isolation and living independently of family, feeling homesick
  • accommodation issues – finding a suitable place to live
  • pressure to be socially accepted, make friends and fit in
  • workloads/studying, assignment deadlines and exams
  • financial pressures – a lack of financial resources; cost of living; pressure of achieving to obtain a good job to pay back loans; concerns around job markets
  • pressures and an expectation from parents/family that they should and will achieve; a fear of being seen as a failure
  • balancing work and study
  • part-time job commitments and shift work
  • excessive socialising
  • disrupted sleep patterns from keeping unsocial hours
  • irregular eating patterns and low-quality nutrition
  • drug and alcohol issues
  • impact of family or relationship issues away from university
  • bullying or harassment, either by a teacher or fellow student(s)

 Is the topic of Mental Health taboo within academia?

The increase in mental health issues amongst students seems to suggest that those experiencing  problems have, in the last few years , become far more comfortable reporting their concerns. Generally, in the wider population the stigma around mental health has increasingly diminished and whilst there is still a long way to go, this positive step appears to be reflected within the higher education system. The IPPR research found that the disclosure by students had increased fivefold in the last decade, whilst the YouGov survey also appears to support a shift in attitudes, with over half of those surveyed (52%) reporting that they know between 1 and 5 five people that suffer from a mental health problem. However, other academic research suggests that many still feel uncomfortable disclosing this directly to their university. The reasons for this vary and may include: a feeling that they will be judged and stigmatised by others, a belief that the university will not be supportive; or simply a lack of knowledge as to what support is available.

Are Universities and academies offering enough support?

I am no expert when it comes to universities, having come from a social background where it really wasn’t an option for me. It is something that I hope my children will experience having listened to my wife’s fond memories of university life. However, I know the safeguarding arena and appreciate the pressures of providing a good quality service when demand exceeds both budget restraints and resourcing. When looking at the various reports and surveys mentioned in this article it didn’t take me long to realise that identifying a university that provides good support and care for student’s mental health, is in fact hit and miss. It had never occurred to me that when my time comes to help and advise my children on a university place, in addition to considering the academic opportunities and facilities, I should also be considering whether the university has a robust and manageable plan in place to safeguard my child’s mental health.

We already know that mental health issues have doubled in the last decade and universities now face a significant increase in demand for counselling and support services, with undoubtedly tighter budgets. Clearly funding has an impact on the services a university can offer. A Freedom of Information Act request last year, by former health minister Norman Lamb, revealed that 58 universities had increased their funding for mental health support in the previous 12 months, whilst 12 had drastically cut their spending. 41 universities had also cut the number of counsellors they used.

The IPPR report shows us that “in some universities, up to 1 in 4 (26%) students are using, or waiting to use, counselling services”. I read too many times that many universities students are having to wait for considerable period, sometimes 4 to 5 months before support becomes available. In many others, the average wait is 4 weeks for a first appointment.  Whilst, on the face of it a month doesn’t seem too long to wait, any lengthy delay in a diagnosis and access to support, may well lead to significant mental health crisis.

In the 2017 published IPPR report ‘Not By Degrees: Improving Student Mental Health In the UK’s Universities’ , the key findings were:

There is variation in the ways in which universities design their strategic response to student mental health and wellbeing.

A range of prevention and promotion activities are widespread across the HE sector. ‘Buy-in and direction from senior leadership’ is considered by universities to be the most important factor in helping to improve student mental health and wellbeing. However:

  • Less than one third (29%) have designed an explicit mental health and wellbeing strategy
  • Less than half (43%) design course content and delivery so as to help improve student mental health and wellbeing
  • Two thirds (67%) do not provide students access to NHS mental health specialists who can deliver interventions onsite
  • 23% cent do not work closely with NHS secondary mental health services.

This is a damming indictment – clear and significant variations in the services offered by universities. A situation in which someone’s access to mental health services and support is determined by the university in which they study, in other words a post code lottery.

There is however, some very positive work going. In September last year Universities UK published ‘Stepchange’, a new framework to help improve the mental health and wellbeing of university students. The target audience for this framework is university senior leaders, to empower and aid them in adopting a “more comprehensive approach to mental health across the whole university population”. So, that rather than adopting a ‘bolt on ‘approach to student mental health, they ensure that it is a priority and included in the University’s overall operating strategies. Recommendations include working closely with the NHS, working in close partnership with parents, schools and colleges, as well as with employers and businesses.

There is no doubt that the subject of student’s mental health has been brought to the fore, through various reports, surveys and highlighted in the media. It remains to be seen whether the recommendations in Stepchange and the excellent work by Student Minds, UMHAN and others will be adopted by the people who can make the real difference – university leaders.  ​

Suggested further reading:

Student living: collaborating to support mental health in university accommodation’, a  report by Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity.

Not by degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK’s universities’ by the Institute for Public Policy Research.

University Mental Health Day 2018 will take place on Thursday 1st March. It is a national campaign to focus efforts on promoting the mental health of people who live, work and study in Higher Education settings. Run jointly by Students Minds and University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN), they encourage all university students and staff to get involved in promoting mental health awareness.

If you are able, please give them  your support on social media through their Thunderclap page.


Please note: The reference to the University of Bristol is purely to highlight the seriousness of recognising mental health in higher education which may lead to tragic circumstances. It is not a comment or critic on the services and response to mental health by that university, who at the time of some of the tragic deaths were already carrying out a review of its health services and had pledged to invest £1million into its mental health and wellbeing provision.

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