Increase in mental illness on campus

October 24, 2003

Growing mental health problems among students are "a matter of considerable concern" and they warrant dedicated student mental-health services in some areas, according to a report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

A variety of factors, including expansion and widening participation in higher education, may be to blame for the increasing number of students who are reported to be suffering from depression and other mental health disorders, the report says.

One in four students suffers from some kind of mental health problem during their time in higher education.

An RCP-appointed working group found that levels of National Health Service mental health care for such students is variable, and there are often significant obstacles to accessing it. As a result, students frequently turn to university counselling services for help. Although these services are generally good, they are increasingly stretched to meet the growing demand for support, the report warns.

"Services are often having to manage a growing volume of demand for counselling, and an increase in the severity of the psychological problems that students present, with limited resources," it says.

The RCP report, The Mental Health of Students in Higher Education , says NHS mental health services are often inadequate for students because of long waiting periods and an appointments system that does not take into account the academic timetable.

"For these reasons, university and college counselling services are often expected to provide specialised psychological therapies," it says.

The report calls for a dedicated student mental-health service in NHS trusts where the size and the needs of the local student population warrant it; a mental health adviser to be identified in each university and college; and "champions" to be identified in local mental health services.

Another study by counsellors at Cardiff University found that students who sought help for depression were usually clinically depressed according to recognised measures.

Often "separation anxiety" caused by living away from home is the trigger for their depression.

John Cowley, Cardiff's head of counselling and chairman of the Association for University and College Counselling, said: "Anxiety caused by the transition from home to university, or from work to university in the case of mature students, can create problems that are often underestimated.

"Those kinds of stresses have always been there, but I think now that students are paying more for higher education they expect a greater level of support."

University counsellors saved my life'

A 21-year-old student at Cardiff University says university counsellors saved her life when the National Health Service failed to help her cope with suicidal thoughts.

The student, who did not wish to be named because she had filed an official complaint against the NHS, said she got no help from local mental-health services even though they had diagnosed her condition as manic depression.

Financial problems exacerbated her depression and caused her to harm herself and to consider suicide. Because she was dyslexic, she had to devote all her time to studying and could not work to pay her debts.

An NHS community health team she had been seeing for a year provided little help, so she turned to her university's counselling service for support through the process of gaining admission to a hospital.

She said: "I was very ill, and I knew I was a danger to myself and others.

I knew I would not have been able to cope on my own with all the red tape you have to go through to get into hospital. The counselling service stepped in where the community health team was no use. They literally saved my life."

After a time in hospital, she returned to her studies on a part-time basis, with the help of a self-management programme provided by the Manic Depression Fellowship. She said: "I have a lot to thank the university counsellors for. I know they are underfunded, but they responded when they could see I needed help."

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