Why is student mental health declining and what can we do?
Starting university is a major life transition. It can be both exciting and overwhelming. Students must manage multiple academic and social pressures, and navigate developmental challenges as they transition to adulthood. Students today are also faced with unique concerns compared to students in the past. This includes the stress of unprecedented financial burden from student loans and increased tuition fees, and the potentially negative consequences on wellbeing of the use of digital technologies and social media.
Recent statistics reveal the extent of the student mental health crisis in the UK. In 2015/16, over 15,000 first-year students in UK universities reported that they had a mental health problem, compared to approximately 3,000 in 2006.6
This increase in disclosure is mirrored by a 94% of higher education institutions reporting an increase in demand for their counselling services. Despite the surge in those seeing help, there is contradictory evidence to suggest that there are many more students who do not seek treatment for mental health problems.
There are a range of implications of worsening mental health among students. Poor mental health has been associated with poorer academic outcomes, as students tend to be less able to effectively manage stress and pressure and, thus, their ability to perform given tasks productively is diminished.They may also be more likely to drop out; statistics highlight a 210% increase in university dropouts among students with mental health problems between 2009/10 and 2014/15.6 Of even greater concern is that student suicides have increased by 79% between 2007 to 2015.
The good news is that student mental health is being pushed higher up the government’s agenda. In 2018 the University Mental Health Charter was introduced and a working group to support students transitioning from school into university/college was formed. Whilst this package was promising the results to date show little impact and a more proactive approach needs to be taken at government, NHS and higher education level.
This includes universities adopting a whole-university approach to student mental health, which should be informed by best practice. Universities and higher education institutions should seek to implement currently available programmes to strengthen the current evidence base and identify what refinements are required.
Addressing mental health in students can have a positive effect on mental health in later life. By ensuring student mental health is treated as a societal concern, we can encourage early intervention and action.
By intervening early, at a critical transition point in young people’s lives, we can avoid the long-term risks associated with poor mental health, which can have far-reaching consequences for the next generation.