Modern students are not snowflakes

Mental illness has been depicted as the primary occupational health hazard of UK student life since the 1950s, says Sarah Crook

March 22, 2022
A depressed woman walks in the snow
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Contemporary coverage tends to present a bleak picture of student life. Students are presented as emotionally fragile, stressed, depressed, overworked and under-engaged. University mental health services struggle to keep up with student demand, and lecturers feel themselves to be on the frontline of a mental health crisis.

Explanations look to the pressures of social media, the financial burdens of the modern university, the demands of high-stakes assessments, the difficulty of independent living and the challenges of adolescence – recently exacerbated by the unprecedented isolation of the Covid lockdowns.

In fact, while many aspects of modern student life are novel, the social, emotional, psychological, and academic challenges it throws up are not among them. My research reveals that UK universities have grappled for decades with how best to support emotionally vulnerable students.

Interest in student health in the early decades of the 20th century centred on physical well-being. After the Second World War, though, student mental health began to be a subject of medical concern. This was for a number of reasons. Attitudes to mental health and psychological development were undergoing a broader shift, but students – who constituted a small and elite minority of young people – were seen as the leaders of the future and, thus, to have unique value to the nation. Their mental welfare was important.

In addition, influential research started to reveal the amount of academic time lost to mental illness. Doctors interested in student health established research and practice communities, and they discovered comparatively high rates of student suicide. Hence, from the 1950s, mental illness was argued to be the primary occupational health hazard of UK student life. And as the student population expanded in the 1960s, concern grew about completion and success rates.

Universities responded to this concern by developing health services and by employing mental health specialists to work with their students. Research bore out the need: in 1968, Anthony Ryle, the first director of the University of Sussex’s health service, suggested that up to 2 per cent of undergraduate students would experience a mental illness severe enough to require hospital admission, and a further 10 to 20 per cent would require treatment for an emotional or psychological problem. University doctors, he said, had a “double responsibility: to help the individual student who is suffering or failing”, and “to make the institution sensitive, tolerant and supportive to vulnerable individuals”.

Students also sought to make universities more sensitive, tolerant and supportive. Since the 1960s, they have campaigned for medical and pastoral care within their institutions, and oral histories that I have conducted reveal their commitment to such agitation – and the personal costs they endured.

Students clamoured for change at a range of institutions. In 1962, students at the University of Nottingham wrote to their student newspaper suggesting the appointment of a university psychiatrist. In 1965, the Glasgow University Guardian decried the stigma attached to mental health problems and called for a psychiatrist at the university. And in 1968, students at the University of Warwick wrote that there was “a growing awareness today, among both students themselves and the public generally, of the tremendous mental strain encountered by virtually every undergraduate”.

Far from being an unprecedentedly modern concern, then, student mental health has long been a subject of anxiety – albeit on a smaller and less public scale than today. This has important implications for our understanding of the present. First, it undermines the stereotype that contemporary students are “snowflakes”, unique in their demands that universities support their emotional and mental well-being. They are much more numerous, and they are uniquely able to publicly articulate their needs and complain about poor experiences of care, but previous generations of students also used the mechanisms available to them to argue that the pressures of student life exacted an emotional toll that universities should seek to mitigate.

While universities occasionally pushed back on such demands, student campaigners did also receive support from within universities. Some pioneers argued that, far from being extrinsic to the purpose of higher education, student well-being was a measure of the success of the university. As Ryle contended in 1970, “student casualty lists provide a measure of the quality of the university’s life just as much as they indicate the vulnerability of the students”.

Ryle was right. But while universities’ responsibilities and pastoral provision have expanded greatly in the intervening 50 years, the struggle goes on to ensure that mental and emotional well-being is central to universities’ missions. It is a struggle that must be won – not because students are snowflakes but because they are human.

Sarah Crook is senior lecturer in history at Swansea University. She is writing a monograph about the history of concern about student mental health. She has published an article on the topic that can be found in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.

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Reader's comments (1)

Alot of this evidence is based on students' self-reporting and self-diagnosing themselves as having mental health issues. More often than not, these self-diagnoses do not meet clinical criteria. So one have to be careful to just dismiss the notion that there has been a widespread move towards encouraging undergraduates to claim mental illness themselves. Many such psychological distress are considered *normal* and are often the exclusion diagnostic criteria for mental health (e.g., bereavement for depression). This article certainly does not fall within the training and skillset of a senior lecturer in History. See Ecclestone & Hayes book titled 'The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education'. We are at the stage that there is a dangerous lowering of what is considered a mental health issue to include trivial day-to-day events (e.g., being stressed by exams and an incoming job interview) that *do not* meet clinical diagnostic criteria. And what we are seeing as part of the contribution to the problem is that academics, like the writer of this article, are proponents of this viewpoint that they themselves do not see that they are unqualified to evaluate the clinical significance of what they are writing about.

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