Student mental health: fresh spike in problems reported

Four out of five UK higher education institutions report increase in students seeking support

May 17, 2016
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Four out of five UK universities have reported a “noticeable increase” in serious mental health problems among students, according to a survey.

AMOSSHE, which represents student services leaders, found that 80 per cent of universities that responded to its questionnaire had observed a significant rise in the number of students experiencing “complex mental health crises” last year, compared with 2014.

Nearly nine out of 10 reported working on critical or serious incidents relating to mental health with the police or coroner during 2015, and 68 per cent were involved in three or more such cases. Nearly half (47 per cent) reported one or more student deaths during 2015 that had been found to be suicide, or that were suspected to be suicide prior to an inquest.

The findings, based on the responses of 54 higher education institutions, come after a study for the Higher Education Funding Council for England estimated that the number of students declaring that they had a mental health problem had increased by 132 per cent over four years, and warned that government funding cuts could force universities to make “increasingly tough decisions about who and what they can support”.

Shelly Asquith, the National Union of Students’ vice-president (welfare), said that student mental health was “in crisis” and that support services were “creaking at the seams”.

“Students are experiencing increasing pressure in a more marketised environment, with high fees and a culture of competition over cooperation; this is leading to stress, anxiety and other mental health problems,” Ms Asquith said. “Efforts to remove the stigma around mental health and the removal of the numbers cap have led to a sharp increase in students seeking counselling over recent years.

“This increase urgently needs to be matched with more funding for professional and targeted mental health support, an end to capped counselling services and a national strategy for student suicide prevention.”

The AMOSSHE survey results were published as part of a review of student mental health at the University of York, which found that cases of attempted suicide and self-harm represented half of the 24 ambulance call-outs to campus during the first five weeks of 2016. They accounted for 32 per cent of all call-outs during the previous year.

The review also reports a 104 per cent increase over three years, according to campus health centre data, in the number of York students diagnosed with depression; a 46 per cent rise in the number of students using the university’s counselling service over four years, nearly three-quarters of whom were thought to be suffering from depression; and evidence that mental health accounted for one in four leaves of absence granted by the institution.

The report, authored by senior York staff and student representatives, says that the rise in student debt, the more challenging labour market and the emergence of cyberbullying might explain some of the increase. It also notes that “perfectionism” among students can lead to intense self-criticism and, potentially, mental distress.

Koen Lamberts, York’s vice-chancellor, pledged “swift implementation” of all the report’s recommendations, including making mental health and well-being an explicit responsibility of the pro vice-chancellor for teaching, learning and students; and action to improve the ability of departmental staff to identify and support students at risk.

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