Mental health crisis on campus

September 22, 2006

Support services are being stretched as more students seek counselling, reports Jessica Shepherd

The number of university students with severe mental health problems has soared in recent years, a Times Higher investigation can reveal.

Support services say they are helping unprecedented numbers of students with schizophrenia and manic depression, also called bipolar disorder.

According to mental health charity Students in Mind, which launches next month, demand for counsellors and other help is so high that the vulnerable are told by some institutions they will be on a waiting list of six weeks or more.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show the number of undergraduates and postgraduates with known mental health difficulties rising by 81 per cent between 2002 and 2005. In 2005, 687 students were known to have mental health difficulties, compared with 380 three years previously.

Figures collected by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reveal a similar trend.

The Times Higher asked universities, under Freedom of Information laws, how many of their students had declared themselves as having mental health difficulties. Under the Disability Discrimination Act, it is not compulsory to do so.

The responses revealed a wide variation across the sector, with a handful reported at some universities, while at one institution 2,449 cases had been disclosed.

Universities were also asked whether any student death in the past six years had been confirmed as a suicide.

A total of 75 suicides were reported by 62 universities - a tiny percentage of the student population. The figure is likely to be higher because many universities said they did not keep a record of this kind of data.

Linda Stanyer, director of Students in Mind, reported that it was already receiving up to 750 visitors a day to its website.

She said mental health difficulties were still a "hidden problem" as far as universities were concerned and that universities "could do an awful lot more".

She said: "We hear about students who are refused by their community mental health team because they are moving to university and then told to wait for at least six weeks to see a university counsellor."

Les McMinn, head of counselling at Surrey University, believes there is evidence to show mental health problems are on the rise in the population as a whole, in particular in the 18-to-30 age bracket.

The former chair of the Heads of University Counselling Services said: "What we are seeing in universities is probably mirroring what the picture is in society generally.

"We are seeing a much greater number and broader cross-section of students go to university now compared with decades ago, thanks to widening participation. It corresponds then that incidences of mental health difficulties will have risen.

"Also there appear to be higher numbers of severe mental health problems among students than in the past, suicide being the most extreme end of that. This is because years ago those students would drop out of university, while today a university might be linked to the mental health team at a hospital."

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

ADVICE FOR ACADEMICS

Papyrus, the national charity for the prevention of young suicide, advises academics to listen to students they are worried about.

Anne Parry, chair of Papyrus, said: "Don't pressure anyone that you may be concerned about, but encourage them to take time out.

"Make sure they know you really care about them and always be available to listen - without interruption or judgment.

"Don't be fooled by their outward appearance. Behaviour observed on the outside doesn't necessarily reflect what is going on inside. Above all, don't ignore or dismiss comments that imply an intention to 'not be here'."

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