Students' mental health - what can universities do?

Today (7th March) we join people all around the UK in celebrating University Mental Health Day. This year, the day focuses on students using their voices to share stories of their own mental health to improve the future of mental health in universities.

Young people at university will make lifelong friends and form enough memories to keep them chuckling well into old age. For most, this experience offers their very first taste of independence, taking them away from loved ones and the security of home and family.

Adjusting to student life can make it difficult to establish healthy routines and students may struggle in the face of academic, social and financial pressures. Depression and anxiety are the most common mental illnesses in the student population, however, large numbers of students also experience other complex issues such as eating disorders, self-harm and personality disorders.

Mental Health In University

In the run-up to Fresher’s Week this year Universities Minister Sam Gyimah wrote to university leaders calling for student wellbeing – specifically mental health – to be a top priority for all establishments. In his letter he says:

"With the new academic year upon us, I’m sure you would agree that good mental health and wellbeing underpins successful participation and attainment."

"Collectively, we must prioritise the wellbeing and mental health of our students – there is no negotiation on this. To make this happen, leadership from the top is essential."

His comments followed a spike in UK suicide rates among students, which are considered to have increased by 56% in the last 10 years. In 18 months alone, 11 students from Bristol University were lost to suicide. This problem is highlighted further by the fact that for the first time, the number of students taking their own lives has overtaken that of the general population. It has also been noted that university dropouts due to poor mental health are at a record high. Universities are now under an ever-increasing pressure to implement effective systems to offer support long before a person’s mental health deteriorates to these severe measures.

Mental Health Risk Factors And University Life

It is considered that 1 in 3 young people in their first year of university have a mental health problem, many of whom arrived with the problem pre-existing. The university lifestyle can be demanding and cause high levels of stress, particularly around certain times of the year such as exam periods. For some students, managing academic studies at the same time as handling sudden independence or financial responsibility can be overwhelming and lead to anxiety or other stress-related problems.

Students struggling with these issues may choose to adopt several unhealthy ‘coping’ strategies. Many report opting for quick ready meals/ takeaways over balanced cooked dinners or reducing time spent sleeping or exercising so that they can channel more hours into studying or working to relieve academic or financial pressures. Others may choose to bury their stressful emotions with overeating, abusing drugs or drinking alcohol. All of these factors can contribute to, or worsen mental ill-health.

What To Look Out For?

There are many different early indicators of mental health problems. If these can be spotted early, and support is given, these issues should be manageable. These include but are not limited to:

  • Poor class attendance
  • Lower grades than usual/expected
  • Social withdrawal
  • Failure to submit work
  • Less interaction in tutorial/seminars
  • Physical signs (e.g. appearance, personal hygiene etc.)
  • Excessive drug/alcohol consumption
  • High levels of anxiety

What Can Be Done?

Listen, support and report when you are concerned. The early indicators of mental health problems should never be ignored. If there is anything that seems out of place or worries you, raise the issue with the relevant pastoral staff. It is also important to have a secure and trusted record-keeping system to maintain a high-level view of the young people in the university’s care.

It is vital to ensure that there are enough support services locally within universities to support the unprecedented number of students who need help. Universities who engage in these practices have reported a 94% rise in people trying to access this support. This demand shows that students are actively looking for help. Further to this, these support services need to be advertised throughout the university so that every single student knows exactly how to access help should they, or someone they know need it.

It is not enough for universities to simply tell students what they “should” be doing to improve their mental health, they need to support and guide young people to put these theories into practice. Universities can do this in a variety of ways, for example by removing 24-hour libraries to reinforce that sleep is vital to health. They could also reduce the amount of unhealthy food available within university buildings and replace them with healthy alternatives to ensure that students have access to the foods that will fuel their bodies and minds.

Examples Of What Is Being Done

There are many universities across the UK which are doing a stellar job at listening to the needs of their students and improving support systems.

As mentioned earlier, the last academic year proved to be heart-breaking for those studying at Bristol University. The university has since been working tirelessly to improve the way they support vulnerable young people:

  • Students can now opt into having a trusted person as a contact which the university are allowed to discuss mental health concerns with. Previously the university had been criticised due to failing to share information with parents due to strict data protection laws. James Murray lost his son to suicide at Bristol University, and he is campaigning for data protection laws to change so that all universities will be able to share this information with parents, or at least a person trusted by the student.
  • More routine appointments with counselling staff have been made available for students who need ongoing support
  • Same day emergency appointments were introduced for those at immediate risk
  • Fresher’s Fair on Mental Health and Wellbeing in Welcome Week to provide information and guidance to new starters.

Other universities taking proactive steps to address this growing concern include York University and Leeds University. York recognised that the first people to spot these signs may be cleaners in halls of residence who may notice a person hasn’t left their room for a few days, or night porters who find students in distress. As a result, they have ensured that all staff, including non-teaching members, have training on recognising the early signs of mental health issues. Leeds have worked to a similar process, offering all members of staff a flowchart on what to do when they are concerned for a student’s welfare and where to guide them to access support.

Universities across the UK are adopting several other measures to enable early intervention. Today’s technology enables universities to track student activity through electronic cards that they use the gain access to university buildings. By collating this data and analysing patterns, staff are able to identify those who are not engaging with studies. They can then approach students they feel to be at risk of dropping out of university and ask them about challenges to find fitting solutions.

Hope For The Future

There is unarguably much more work to be done. It gives hope for the future that many universities are responding so positively to this growing challenge. With further understanding into the causes of these complex issues, and research being carried out to find better treatments, we hope that in years to come student suicides and serious mental health problems will start to decline.

Useful Links:

Student Minds

Young Minds


Save the Student


Did you know that MyConcern can be used by universities for the secure recording, reporting and monitoring of students’ mental health and other safeguarding issues? Contact us to find out how MyConcern could help you protect the young people in your organisation.

Sam Franklin

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