The student mental health crisis: why and what next?
A 2019 poll among students revealed that about 80% struggled with feelings of anxiety, and more than one in five had been diagnosed with a mental health condition. To make matters worse, three-quarters of students hid their symptoms from friends, suggesting that mental illness is still stigmatised. In the year leading up to July 2017, the suicide rate was 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students. Mental health awareness seems to be increasing, so why are students overlooked?
‘The best time of their life’
The picture of a university experience is often painted as the best time of someone’s life. An opportunity to feel a real sense of freedom. Socialising, late nights, lie ins. A lot of people will have a positive experience and can continue to romanticise their time at university. However, for some students, the reality couldn’t be more different. Moving away from home for the first time can be extremely unsettling, leading to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. Many people struggle being far away from their family and friends, and are unable to recreate the support network they once had. Socialising can become a huge pressure, as people strive to keep up with their new lifestyle. Further to this, the high prevalence of alcohol and other drug use can take its toll on those who are vulnerable. Financial issues can also have a massive impact on someone’s university experience. With high rent costs and the social lifestyle, students often find a part-time job to put more money into their pockets. But the reality is, trying to balance a course that demands a lot of work and time with a part-time job can lead to extreme feelings of exhaustion and stress. These are just some of the factors that can make a student vulnerable to mental health problems, and potentially exacerbate any pre-existing conditions.
It’s important to recognise the reasons why students might be less likely to receive the care they need compared with the general population. Do students think it’s normal to feel stressed, anxious or depressed because so many people around them feel the same? Perhaps they just try to keep going and it is never even recognised that they are suffering from poor mental health. While this is true, the same can also be applied to those in all parts of life. So, what really separates students from everyone else? In some cases, it’s possible that people who have a pre-existing mental health condition simply go off the radar at university. Thrown into an intense new environment and far away from their previous support system, without their previous care provider nearby, some may end up struggling in silence and deprived of the care they need. A lot of people don’t register at a GP when they move for university and save appointments until they are back in their hometown during university holidays. This can lead to huge delays in starting treatment and may result in mental health problems spiralling further out of control. One of the major issues unique to the student population is inadequate communication between NHS and university mental health or counselling services. The impact of this can be detrimental, with students slipping through the cracks and not accessing the treatment they need. This poor communication can partly be attributed to a lack of funding; university and NHS mental health services are massively underfunded in the UK. There are such long waiting lists for counselling and mental health services, which of course means treatment delays. In many cases, access to care comes far too late.
What needs to happen next? Universities must know they need to act, but are too many just trying to put a plaster on the issue? Stress-relieving activities are fundamentally a good idea and it is definitely a progressive step to start educating students on leading a healthy, positive lifestyle. However, while the prevention of issues that could trigger poor mental health is important, only focussing on these areas could come across as patronising to those with a diagnosed mental health condition. Funding and improved access to care and services are equally significant. The Universities UK Framework has been developed to support higher education senior teams to adopt a whole university approach to mental health. If implemented, this could be extremely beneficial to students.
It is clear that universities need to focus on both preventing and treating mental health conditions. Universities should evaluate and improve their support systems, particularly for new students who have relocated. Stronger ties and effective communication with community services are vital, so those in need of treatment or support don’t get lost in between the two systems. Alongside this, it is crucial that students have timely access to mental health services. Increased funding will be needed – if this is not prioritised, then the student mental health crisis will only worsen.