The UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) thinktank has just published a report calling attention to the sheer scale of student mental health issues and recommending that institutions increase their funding in this area threefold.
One of the key factors, as several major research projects make clear, is financial stress.
Another recent report recorded an explosion in the demand for counselling. And, rather than just bringing typical homesickness or relationship worries, students are now seeking help for more serious issues such as depression and anxiety, and often citing financial worries as a main driver of these problems.
With living costs and tuition fees rising almost simultaneously, growing numbers of young people are feeling under enormous pressure to tighten the purse strings. This, accompanied by a move away from all that is familiar – their home, family and friends – can become a burden too heavy to bear, and the stress can manifest itself in many ways.
Research from the University of Southampton and Solent NHS Trust has found that students who worry about debt, and who experience financial difficulties, are more likely to suffer from depression and a dependency on alcohol.
The YMCA’s World of Good report corroborates these findings: the 16- to 25-year-olds we surveyed cited failing to succeed in the education system as one of their top three concerns. When asked what they saw as the biggest barrier to overcoming this, they answered financial inequality. Our research also found that they only expected this problem to worsen.
So what can we do to try to mitigate the impact that financial anxieties are having on students?
It’s likely that universities will face further funding cuts in the coming years. However, that shouldn’t be a licence for them automatically to cut support services. At Central YMCA, we firmly believe that such services perform a vital function and should be protected if we are serious about tackling poor student well-being.
We would ask institutions to review the current financial support available to students. It’s crucial that the level is on a par with the cost of living. It’s also important that those from lower-income backgrounds have access to additional support should they need it.
Universities and colleges must ensure that students are aware of all available grants, scholarships and bursaries. Higher education must be meritocratic, and no one should be priced out of the opportunity to learn.
Universities should also consider offering students more robust financial advice services, to educate them in how to budget and the implications of applying for more credit through overdrafts, payday loans and credit cards.
Fostering a culture where students can speak frankly about mental health and emotional well-being is something that universities should be tackling, too. Keeping an ear to the ground and being more proactive in identifying and reaching out to vulnerable students is vitally important.
Ultimately, universities need to be more proactive in identifying and then supporting those in need of help. With rising numbers of students reporting poor well-being – we need to act fast.
Rosi Prescott is chief executive officer of Central YMCA, a UK health, education and well-being charity.
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