What can universities around the world do to identify students suffering a mental health emergency, and how can they stop such a crisis getting out of control?
This was set to be debated at the conference of the European Association for International Education on 15 September by a panel that includes Ann Conlon, a psychotherapist and counsellor from King’s College London.
Dr Conlon, a former head of counselling at King’s, said that universities were supporting growing numbers of students reporting mental health problems.
In the UK, a survey conducted by AMOSSHE, which represents student services leaders, found that four out of five universities in the country had observed a “noticeable increase” in serious mental health problems among students over the past year.
And the latest data from the country’s Office for National Statistics show that the number of suicides involving students aged over 18 hit a record high in 2015, with 134 incidents reported, up from 100 just two years previously.
Dr Conlon said that some of the increase in demand for counselling services might reflect how people were now “fortunately less ashamed” about admitting that they were experiencing difficulties and that they needed help.
But, she added, today’s undergraduates were also experiencing more anxiety than ever before, whether as a result of increased family breakdowns, or growing pressure inside higher education.
“In my day, if you got a 2:2 you were considered to be doing well,” Dr Conlon said. “Nowadays, students who don’t get a first are considered failures, and that can be related not only to the marketplace of getting a career; generally there is a lot of anxiety around young people.
“Our own students come out with huge debts as well, so there is an awful lot of pressure.”
These pressures can be felt particularly keenly by international students, said Dr Conlon, who highlighted that Chinese students born under the one-child policy may bear the burden of particularly strong familial expectations.
“International students are coming to a different way of life and being more independent. They are grappling with a very different culture, a language which is not their first language, and perhaps a different way of learning,” she said. “They have lost the support structure of family and friends, so they have more to contend with than home students.”
In addition, international students who are experiencing difficulties may feel more of a sense of shame and may be less inclined to seek help at first, Dr Conlon said.
So what can universities to do help? First, Dr Conlon said, the message needs to go out that most people experience problems at some stage of their life, and that it is OK to seek help.
Academic and departmental staff should be vigilant, too, aware that sudden changes in attendance or performance could be a warning sign.
And although it is difficult in the current higher education environment, Dr Conlon said that maintaining and increasing funding for mental health support was also important.
“One is always fighting for more staff and more resources, and there is no doubt that the numbers [needing help] are increasing every year,” she concluded. “Universities have to keep up with that if we are going to be an effective resource helping students stay at university and not dropping out of their courses.”