University students with mental illnesses are falling through the gaps


The number of first year students arriving at university who report a mental health condition is now five times what it was ten years ago. There’s also been a trebling in the number of students dropping out of university with mental health problems.

Half of all UK school leavers go on to study at university. So given the high number of young people in higher education, the mental health of students should be a high priority for universities and the government. But although universities have seen a sharp increase in the number of students trying to access support services, the psychological health and well-being of these young adults is not always being met.

This is in part down to the fact that students sometimes need more specialist treatment, but also that referring students to health services is not always straightforward. In the UK, for example, NHS services are not set up to manage the needs of the student population. And students routinely fall through the gaps – lost to the system. Delays in treatment can leave students with mental illnesses without appropriate support. This impacts on their learning and can lead to further psychological deterioration.

The difficulties

Life at university can be demanding and stressful. As well as academic studies, students are often navigating other changes. For example, for many first year students, attending university means moving away from home, becoming more independent, managing their own finances, and having a part-time job.

Studying combined with life changes can lead students to feel overwhelmed and stressed – and many students report high levels of anxiety and distress. Often when students feel stressed, they reduce their sleep time, eat poorly and stop exercising. But these are the very things that can help to regulate emotions and manage stress.

Other unhealthy coping strategies can include negative self-talk, procrastination, emotional eating, drinking alcohol and becoming socially withdrawn. Students might also have thoughts of suicide.

University wide priority

Improving health and well-being on campus means ensuring that students have access to support when necessary and know where to turn in times of crisis. This could be through university counselling and other student support services. Students who use these services report high levels of satisfaction and many say they were critical to them staying at university. But there’s also other practical things universities can do to help students.

Health promotion involves more than telling students what they should be doing, they also need to be helped to do it. As providers of adult education, universities are well placed to design and action healthy and supportive learning environments.

The right support is key to help make university a positive experience for students. Shutterstock

Universities need to reinforce healthy behaviours in words and in practice. So while universities might offer advice on sleep, nutrition, physical activity, stress management and coping strategies, they can also help students to act on this advice.

This might include things like not having libraries open all night to reinforce the need for students to get sufficient sleep. Or having healthy foods in vending machines to encourage healthy eating – as well as providing plenty of opportunities on campus for low cost physical activity and exercise.

Whose responsibility?

Given the current mental health crisis among students, the UK government is now considering grading universities on their ability to deliver improved student mental health and well-being outcomes.

The government has proposed rewarding institutions that demonstrate good practice – by making student and staff mental health a university wide priority. The initiative proposed by Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, will be created in partnership with the charity UPP Foundation, the Office for Students, the National Union of Studentsand Universities UK.

Nicola Dandridge, who has been appointed by the UK government to lead the higher education sector’s first watchdog – the Office for Students – recently said student mental health must be tackled as a top priority. But she also stressed that this is not just the responsibility of universities.

To support the mental health of students, universities need to continue in their role as promoters of health and well-being. And in the UK, the NHS requires increased resources to deliver specialist mental health treatment – that can meet the needs of students.

Universities and students also need to be consulted and included in collaborative efforts to design mental health treatment services. This is important, because it is only with increased collaboration and government investment that the needs of the student population can be met.

Author Bios: Bridgette Bewick is an Associate Professor in Health Research a the University of Leeds and Helen Stallman is a Hospital Research Foundation Fellow at the University of South Australia