The growing number of students from diverse social and cultural backgrounds is fuelling a rise in mental health problems in universities, a conference has heard.
Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, said that many young people were suffering amid higher rates of family breakdown and the recession’s continuing toll, which had increased demand for mental health services at his institution.
Professor West spoke at a Universities UK event in central London on 13 February that launched new guidelines to support institutions in dealing with mental health among the student body.
These guidelines aim to make sure that universities are offering effective and accessible support for students. The event, titled Student Mental Wellbeing: Policy, Practice and Future Directions, brought together staff responsible for mental health in higher education.
Professor West said that the student body has expanded significantly and that it has become “more socially and culturally diverse”.
The numbers of students from low-participation areas and from overseas are on the rise.
“Many are the first generation coming to university, and their ability to be supported away from home may or may not be that well developed,” Professor West said at the event.
He added that international students face additional challenges adjusting to the UK and may have to manage high expectations from their families.
“We have also been seeing higher rates of family breakdown, and an economic recession that has hard hit many young people,” he continued. “We are seeing year-on-year increases in demand for accessing [mental health] services.”
Colum McGuire, vice-president for welfare at the National Union of Students, said that students are under increasing pressure academically, financially and emotionally and that “many are finding it harder to maintain good mental health”.
He added that when the NUS last conducted research, in 2013, a fifth of 1,200 higher education students surveyed believed that they had mental health problems.
A study by the Equality Challenge Unit, launched at the event, found that about half of students and university staff with mental health difficulties are not asking for help because of a lack of information or fear of being treated unfairly.