The recent release of statistics by the UK’s Office for National Statistics on student suicide rates raised some eyebrows. Contrary to concerns about a mental health crisis on campus, the figures suggested that student suicide rates are actually lower than among young British adults more widely.
So can universities give themselves a pat on the back and move on? Far from it. The prevalence of mental illness, distress and low well-being is rising among all young UK adults. Universities UK reports a fivefold increase in the number of students disclosing mental health conditions since 2007, hitting nearly 60,000 in 2017-18. And there is evidence that some coroners are loathe to record suicide verdicts in cases involving young people because of the stigma and family distress it can cause. So official figures may be underestimates.
As someone who spent nearly three decades in UK universities, the last 10 in senior leadership, I have no shortage of tragic stories to tell about student mental health crises. Now that I am at the helm of the UK’s leading body for psychotherapies, I say this to vice-chancellors, in stark managerial terms: upfront investment in high-quality mental health services is urgently needed, and will reap benefits for sector performance, global reputation and financial sustainability.
Despite the increase in need, we’re currently seeing no increase in funding for therapies. While some universities deliver a daily drop-in service or telephone helpline, there may be a wait of many weeks for what is, I am told, often a time-limited bout of counselling that barely scratches the surface of deep-seated, complex issues. I am not blaming the counselling services because I know they’re telling management the same thing.
But a medicalised intervention is not always appropriate. In seeking a “mitigating circumstances” exemption from an exam or essay deadline, students should not have to produce a doctor’s diagnosis for feelings that are perfectly natural reactions to leaving home, late nights, dubious partner choices or too much junk food. GPs telling students something is wrong with them can impact the rest of their lives.
A more psychotherapeutically informed approach is needed. That doesn’t mean “going soft” or ditching rigour. It means equipping students, individually or in groups, with enhanced self-understanding and mechanisms for self-care, so they are better able to form meaningful, sustainable relationships with peers, tutors and future employers.
What a powerful recruitment and retention tool this would be: to offer students the very best conditions in which to thrive and optimise their academic potential alongside their employability.
But it is unsafe to expect tutors to recognise complex emotional needs on the basis of a couple of hours of training. Moreover, many students don’t want to confide in their academic tutors. With increasing pressure on employability, who wants to tell their professional reference writer that they are struggling to cope?
The father of Ben Murray, who recently became the University of Bristol’s 10th suicide victim in two years, is calling for the relaxation of data protection rules that deter universities from alerting parents about serious mental health problems. But we should certainly go no further down that road than the opt-in alert system that universities minister Sam Gyimah proposed last week, as part of a wider "mental health charter", given that parents may be part of the problem.
Often, it is only when students leave the home environment that they start to feel the impact of dysfunctional childhoods. They come to university as “adults”, expected to take full responsibility for their own health and welfare. But 18-year-olds are acutely vulnerable in psychotherapeutic terms as they are thrust into the midst of a partying lifestyle without any emotional safety net.
Universities need to co-opt highly trained expert therapists on to their governance and operation bodies, to allocate spending most effectively. They will tell university leaders to stop hiding one-size-fits-all therapy services away in bunkers on the edge of campus and to bring support in myriad ways into the heart of student life.
Universities are supposed to lay the foundations for healthy, well-functioning societies. They should be exemplars of good practice on mental health. But without bold investment, I fear that we haven’t heard the last – or the worst – of the issue of student suicide.
Sarah Niblock is chief executive of the UK Council for Psychotherapy.