A growing number of undergraduates are reporting mental health problems, according to a report that shows a record number of students have killed themselves in recent years.
The scale of the mental health crisis at UK universities is revealed in a study by the IPPR thinktank. It shows that the number of students who disclosed a mental health problem in their first year rose fivefold to reach 15,395 in a decade.
Analysts also found that a record 134 students killed themselves in 2015. In the same year a record number of students with mental health problems dropped out of university.
Experts put the rise down to growing pressure on students who leave university with huge debt, as well as increased awareness – meaning more people are reporting problems.
Mark Salter, a spokesman for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said it was “deeply alarming” that student suicide numbers had nearly doubled in the past decade.
“We know that the government needs to do much more to stop people reaching the level of desperation where they take their own lives. Suicide is preventable … without proper resourcing and funding, we will not reduce suicide in England,” he said.
Craig Thorley, an IPPR senior research fellow, said young people’s studies risked being disrupted.
“Universities must be ready to support these students, including, where appropriate, through referral into specialist care. But the extent of support is currently too varied, and many university services are overwhelmed by the level of demand,” he said.
The report called for universities to ensure that their counselling services had close links with local GPs and mental health services.
Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said the findings were “shocking” and should act as a “massive wake-up call to universities to take this area much more seriously”.
He said: “Some vice-chancellors still think [mental health care] is not the business of universities and it’s just about development of the mind, but developing minds means nothing unless you also help people learn how to become settled down and ready to learn.”
The Labour MP Luciana Berger said the research uncovered worrying levels of mental ill-health: “The wellbeing of students cannot be an afterthought. The government and universities must take on board the recommendations and create the conditions in which our next generation can get help and flourish.”
New analysis found female first-year students were significantly more likely than their male counterparts to disclose a mental health condition in 2015-16, whereas four years previously both were equally likely.
Ruth Caleb, wellbeing consultant at Brunel University, said the rise could be down to the fact that more students now came to university already anxious and worried about the degree they would get, as well as the debt they would be saddled with as their working lives began.
“The rise is due to a combination of more awareness of mental health issues, a lowering of the taboo previously attached to mental health services and a greater sense of anxiety about the future. Young men are still a concern to us as they tend not to present as much to counselling and wellbeing services,” she said.
The report also highlighted soaring demand on services. Through a survey of 58 UK higher education providers, it found 94% had experienced an increase in demand for counselling services over the past five years, while 61% had seen demand jump by more than a quarter.
The proportion of students using, or waiting to use, counselling services was as high as 26% at some universities.
The report recommends that the Department of Health introduce a new NHS Student Health Fund, with local partnerships of health and education providers bidding to deliver innovative models of integrated care to students.
It also called for a new student premium to top up the funding of GP practices with high proportions of patients who are students, as these practices receive less funding per head.
Thorley said: “As a first step, the university sector should make a firm commitment to drive up quality and increase access to support services. Along with strengthened NHS provision and funding, this will help ensure that no student is held back by their mental health.
A Department for Education spokesperson said the government had worked with Universities UK to improve mental health support. “We expect all universities to take the wellbeing of their students seriously and ensure that they are providing them with the right support … Later this year the government will also publish a green paper with proposals to improve mental health services,” they said.
My mental health problems came to a head this year when I ended up in hospital in January, just before my finals. I thought I was having a heart attack but it turned out to just be anxiety.
I definitely struggled during my time at university but I found support through the college counsellor. Each Cambridge college also has a nurse, and so I spoke to her. She was very helpful. The porters at my college were also always there for me if I needed someone to talk to as they lived with us 24 hours a day.
I graduated from Cambridge and am starting a master’s at Durham in September.
There is definitely more pressure on students to get something out of their degree. During my third year I looked around at people applying for master’s courses and jobs. I was told to get a job but didn’t know what to do. I’ve now decided to do a master’s but you pay so much for university and young people now feel the weight of that.
I have depression and autism, both formally diagnosed after coming to university. I experienced these illnesses before then but only sought treatment when I was at York University because it got bad and I was worried about my academic performance.
I found it hard in my first year to adapt to working and my attendance in seminars was really bad. I kept missing stuff because depression meant I struggled to leave my room. In the second term of my first year I was having a really bad month and had missed half of my seminars and was like, ‘I need to address this because it’s really affecting me academically.’ That’s when I spoke to my GP.
Depression for me feels like having a lot of motivation and wanting to do everything but having no energy. It left me quite isolated. I am not sure help at university is good enough as I know loads of people who have not been able to get counselling appointments.
It’s good that services are there, but there’s not enough funding. I would say about half of all students experience problems to some degree, maybe not serious mental health problems but low wellbeing or mood.
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