Is there a crisis in student mental health?
Starting university should be a time for having fun and making new friends. So why are we seeing record referral rates to student counselling services and reports of student suicides in the news? And what can universities do to help? Dr Nicola Byrom, Lecturer in Psychology at King’s College London, is using UK Research and Innovation ‘Network Plus’ funding to find out.
Type ‘Student mental health’ into a search of UK news and you’ll be hit by headlines referring to: ‘The ticking time-bomb’, ‘Students being let down’, warnings that ‘problems are rising’. If you read these stories in isolation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re in the depths of a crisis in student mental health.
In reality the picture is much more complex. In June this year, the Office of National Statistics reported that the suicide rate among the general population is actually higher than the comparable age group of university students.
What the figures say
We know that, across the population, there have been increases in symptoms of depression and anxiety among young women. But there are real gaps in data and understanding. From what we know about university students, only two things seem to be clear; there has been a significant increase in reporting of mental distress and demand for support services. At some institutions as many as one in four students are either being seen, or waiting to be seen, by a university counsellor. So, what’s going on?
I believe that we need to urgently direct attention to understanding what’s changing for students. If we saw a dramatic increase in the number of students turning up in accident and emergency with broken legs, would we ask for resources to be focused on improving orthopaedic surgery? Or would we ask why these students were breaking their legs and direct resources to reducing this risk?
Focus on prevention
With a new Network Plus funding grant from UK Research and Innovation, I’m working with colleagues across the UK to develop a national research network to better understand why we’re seeing increased levels of mental distress among students and how institutions can respond. Two of the issues we’ll be looking at are the factors that contribute to mental health problems and the role that knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders play, known as mental health literacy.
Today’s students face numerous sources of insecurity. They are likely to be renting for years after they graduate, with high levels of debt. They face a graduate employment market that is slimming down and speeding up. And any number of factors may be impacting upon mental health while at university, from the loneliness that comes with solo-living to the increased pressure to achieve high grades.
The increased adoption of Virtual Learning Environments and a 24/7 work culture may be adding to isolation. And, ironically, increased concern for risks around student mental health may be making academics more cautious about providing informal support, out of fear it may have an inadvertent detrimental effect.
Going beyond raising awareness
Mental health literacy first struck me as a key issue when I was listening to young adults speak at the International Association of Youth Mental Health conference. They raised concerns that their peers see campaigns saying, ‘ask for help’, but struggle to identify where ‘normal’ stress ends and a mental health problem begins. They aren’t sure if, and when, this message applies to them.
I don’t know how widely these views are held. But if we are to really support better mental health for students, we need to understand how to move beyond raising awareness and build good mental health literacy.
Learning from students
Our Network, SMaRteN: Student Mental Health Research Network, will be working with people with a range of expertise across higher education, including students, to improve our understanding of student mental health. We’ll collaborate with the charity Student Minds, as they work to develop a charter mark for mental health at universities. Our first step is to recruit a national team of students to lead a Student Research Team. For more information and to find out how to get involved visit SMaRteN.
Ultimately, we hope that the insight we gain through the network will have an impact both inside and outside student halls. It’s an issue we can’t ignore.