Student Mental Health and Wellbeing

Starting university is a tough period of transition for many school leavers. Over the course of one long summer, teenagers are supposed to suddenly change into fully fledged adults and deal with all the freedoms and responsibilities that come with that status. There is an assumption that the young should be able to cope with these changes with limited assistance, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not the case. Latest figures show that 6.3% of students dropout in first-year, five times more disclose a mental health issue to their Higher Education Institute (HEI) than 10 years ago and, most worryingly, 95 students across all years took their own lives in the 12 months to July 2017.

The question that I really want to answer is what do we actually know about student mental health & wellbeing and what can be done to address worrying trends?

What are the facts?

As mentioned, in 2015/16 2% of UK domiciled first-year Students disclosed a mental health issue to their HEI, 5 times more than ten years ago. This is the most comprehensive data available on the prevalence of mental health issues at university, but how accurate is this figure and what does it really show?

In terms of accuracy it does seem rather limited – it only captures students who directly talk to their HEI about their disability, many choose to talk to independent services or even keep it to themselves. There is also an issue with the way that the data is collected. When a student is asked about disabilities only one can be registered, so if someone is partially sighted and suffers from anxiety, one has to be ignored. What does it really show? – A rising number of first-year students disclosing mental health problems doesn’t necessarily mean more are experiencing issues, it could equally show that through more students feel comfortable talking about their mental health. This could therefore reflect a reduction in the stigmatisation of mental health issues, a result of recent public health campaigns. One thing that there can be no doubt over is that more students are seeking help from their HEI, increasing the pressure on services and showing that continuous budget increases are essential.

Recent survey data on the student experience shows a much different picture surrounding mental health and wellbeing:

1)      New Realists Project (2019): The Percentage of students who consider they have a mental health condition has risen to 17% from 12% in 2016. There are many other interesting statistics from this survey, one that stood out for me was that 25% of students were sometimes or always lonely!

2)      University student mental health survey (2018): From a survey of 37,500 students, 21.5% had a current mental health diagnosis, 1 in 5 of these said that the issue had developed at uni. This survey also took data on loneliness, finding that 33% often or always felt lonely.

I would have to say that these surveys seem to be a better fit with my experience at uni. I certainly knew more than one in fifty that suffered with some form of mental health or wellbeing issue and unfortunately 20% seems more accurate.

It must always be recognised however (and this is my economics degree talking here) that this is survey data, not ‘facts’, and so it is subjective. You’ve all seen those adverts – ‘90% of people agreed that this shampoo changed their lives and cured their baldness’ – but the small print says this was based on a survey of 10 people who probably all work in the office. The questions used in surveys can also be used to bias the data towards the preferred outcome. In the case of the student mental health and wellbeing data you have to be very careful on the definitions of what a ‘mental health’ or ‘wellbeing issue’ is, this could vary massively from case to case. But despite all of these potential pitfalls, increasingly good sample sizes for this area of research means that (in my opinion) this data should be taken seriously.

Issue of Measurement

So far, I have been conflating student mental health and wellbeing issues. This is very easy to do and the terms are often used interchangeably, but this should be avoided wherever possible. A more detailed description of the differences between the terms can be found on the Mind Website.

In practice, not making any distinction between these terms can be damaging to individuals and make the provision of support services ineffective.

This is because mental health issues are seen to be more severe and harder to address alone, those with bad mental health need dedicated interventions from professional services. There are no easy shortcuts for this and the importance of intervention in these cases cannot be underestimated, especially given the worrying stats on student suicides.

This does not mean to say that students with low wellbeing are insignificant and should be ignored. However, they will often have more agency to address the issues with the help of targeted resources. For example, someone may experience low wellbeing as a result of having a poor diet, not exercising and drinking too much alcohol. Targeted advice on practical solutions for certain lifestyle defects can help raise wellbeing without the need for professional action. This is one of the main aims for the student advice booklet Thrive & Survive, a guide to your first year @ uni’.

How much should we worry? 

There certainly does not seem to be enough concrete data on the prevalence of mental health and wellbeing issues as independent variables at university. Basically this is one for the statisticians, but shouldn’t it be a priority for the powers that be to get a better handle on the issue? I don’t want to get overly political here but I wonder how much more attention would be on student mental health right now if certain other things weren’t occupying the constant attention of our government…

What we have for sure is a clear increase on the demand for services. One survey has shown that 81% of HEI’s reported an overall increase of demand for support services over the past five years. Whether this is from worsening mental health, more students going to uni or less stigmatisation misses the point – the fact is that pressure on student support resources is increasing at universities. That is worrying.

What can be done? 

There doesn’t seem to be any easy solutions to help ease the rise in demand for student support services. I strongly believe that one priority on the wellbeing front should be to focus on prevention – an area that is seemingly rarely touched upon. This would target areas of student life which have the potential to develop into problems if not addressed. A first-year student who has never left home could easily struggle with fundamental cooking, budgeting or even social skills, which they are often assumed to already have. The targeted provision of concise and consolidated advice to first-year students as they begin their university experiences seems like a good place to start in tackling this problem.

This is not going to solve the problem of bad student mental health, but isn’t early intervention a positive step for student welfare?

For students with mental health issues, a focussed attempt to reduce or even remove the waiting times to see councillors should be addressed urgently. There have been some shocking claims recently on dangerously high times of up to twelve weeks, there is no grey area here with statistics, this needs to be changed. While there are potential debates to be had with efficiency and the use of staff time, cutting the amount of time that councillors spend per student can’t be a positive option. It would seem to me that increased investment and more staff is the only way to better deal with more serious student mental health issues. This leads onto the debate as to whether this is the responsibility of universities, or does the responsibility lie elsewhere (but that is for another day).


Will Jones

Director, Thrive & Survive

Will Jones - Thrive and Survive Director