The Other Pandemic

The Other Pandemic

The student mental health crisis - and what can be done

Article by Michael Mander

This article is about mental health and includes some references to suicide and self-harm.

Across the UK’s universities, there’s another epidemic at large. Thousands of students suffer – often in silence. And yet, universities can’t seem to curb it. 

One in four UK students now reports having a mental health problem, according to a 2016 poll by YouGov. An NUS survey from 2015 suggested it was even more: an astounding 78% of students reported experiencing mental health problems in the last year.

Six in ten (63%) students say that they feel levels of stress that interfere with their day to day lives. Additionally, 77% of all students report that they have a fear of failure, with one in five of these saying that this fear is very prevalent in their day to day life.

And this is a deadly problem. The suicide rate for students appears to by rising year-on-year, with the latest data from the ONS reporting 4.7 deaths by suicide per 100,000 students. 

While tabloid headlines lambast snowflake students who can’t cope with the demands of university, the reality is that the sharp rise in stress, mental health disorders and, tragically, student suicide seem to be symptoms of a larger problem. 

But how do we fix this? In today’s Global Perspectives we speak to Norman Lamb – the former Minister for Care and mental health campaigner; Loo Fletcher, who dropped out of university after a suicide attempt and now works to improve student mental health at universities; and Nick Bennett, the founder of the mental fitness app, Fika. 

The problem

Former Liberal Democratic politician Norman Lamb was the Minister for Care and Support during the coalition government, working within the Department of Health. 

Since then, he has become a staunch campaigner for improved services and support for young people with poor mental health.  

“Before I left the Department of Health in 2015,” he said, “I commissioned a prevalence survey to assess levels of mental ill-health among young people. It hadn’t been carried out for over 10 years. It showed an increase in prevalence – not dramatic, but a clear increase.”

What is driving this increase? Norman pointed to the high-pressured environment of the university setting: “It’s young people being away from home often for the first time. It’s a high-pressure environment for academic attainment and competition, and then there are all the social pressures as well. 

“I think it’s a combination of factors there that is making it quite a potentially dangerous time where some people will be at risk. 

“Of course, the majority sail through without any difficulty. But there will be some for whom these pressures have consequences.” 

Loo Fletcher lived through those consequences. She dropped out of Leeds University, struggling with poor mental health following her dad’s death. 

She later went on to study Law at Bristol University, but she had a breakdown that led to a suicide attempt, and made the decision to leave. 

“There are two things that are causing students to struggle with mental health at university,” Loo said. “The first is the way that Universities sell themselves. They sell the life you’re going to have at a university education. But actually, students arrive to a very different game. 

“And from the students’ point of view, students don’t know themselves – and university can be sink or swim. When it comes to mental health, it’s a lonely world and loneliness in students is a massive issue. I actually don’t think you should go straight out of school – because so many people don’t know themselves.”

The damning statistics

Is this rise in poor mental health among students an inevitability? Is it a failure of universities? Is it a failure of government, or even of society? 

There isn’t a simple answer – and the blame doesn’t lie in a single place. But the statistics can be damning. 

In 2019, Norman Lamb set out to investigate the counselling put on by universities. The findings made headlines around the country – some students found themselves waiting for up to 12 weeks for a counselling session. One in four universities, Norman’s research found, had cut or frozen the budget for student mental health. 

The average wait was seven-and-a-half weeks, which was seen at the University of Bristol. The university was being watched closely and faced criticism, after 12 students died from suicide in three years between 2016 and 2019. 

Loo Fletcher was almost part of that statistic, after attempting suicide while she was a student there. “I don’t want anyone to ever feel like that – you don’t need to,” she said. “What went wrong for me? Not academic pressure – it was that I became a shell of myself. That’s what breaks the camel’s back: students don’t recognise themselves. That’s what causes the academics to fail, and it doesn’t need to get to that point.”

How do we fix this?

Now, Loo has set up a mental health collective to support students with the challenges they face day-to-day. “A lot of initiatives that universities put on like puppy petting days are pretty. But they’re lazy and they’re a scapegoat. It’s the culture that needs to be changed. If you run a good mental health campaign then cultivate a stressful culture throughout the rest of the year, what good will that do?

“You have to employ the right people, people who know how to talk to a student going through a crisis. Too much pressure has been put on lecturers and personal tutors to be counsellors, but those are two completely different skills.”

A strategic framework released by UUK earlier this year, Stepchange, echoes this point. The framework “calls on universities to adopt mental health as a strategic priority, to see it as foundational to all aspects of university life, for all students and all staff.”

student mental health in higher education

Sometimes, big interventions are needed. But other times, it involves rethinking some traditional aspects of the university experience.

As Norman Lamb explained: “just as one example, think about Freshers’ Week, and the pressures that new students can be under during that period, coupled with the pressures of alcohol consumption and everything else. I think the universities tolerate it when they need to take responsibility. There’s absolutely a responsibility to create a healthy workplace for everyone, and there’s also a responsibility to provide support for those who are struggling.”

Mental fitness

Nick Bennett recognised the problem of student mental health, but viewed the problem as a wider one. “When you do a Google image search for physical health, you get images of people exercising and living a healthy life. When you search for mental health, you get skulls with the word schizophrenia. We’ve created a deficit culture around mental health.

“We all had physical education in high school, and that is an important part of health literacy. But when you bring it back over to mental health – the whole area of mental fitness is absent.”

So Nick founded Fika, an app that trains your mental fitness in the same way you would train physical fitness. A five-minute workout provided to students through the app improves focus, confidence and resilience – as well as improving general wellbeing. 

It is made available through partnerships with universities, many of which are already on board. 

“The whole sector has to start to think more about how important the mental education gap is,” said Nick. 

Data, data, data

Universities should also be collecting data around student wellbeing and mental health. 

An investigation by student newspaper the Tab found that the data on student suicide is often not held, or incomplete. 55% of universities approached for the data were unable to provide it, the Tab found, with one university saying it ‘hardly worth’ releasing the numbers

But universities should be collecting more data on the overall wellbeing of the student body, in a way that could help with early interventions. 

Norman Lamb explained: “any institution in the country ought to be capable of getting their act together on data. Their approach must be data driven.”

Through the Fika app, Nick is also supporting universities to collect more data – and better data – on student wellbeing: “we can start to develop an understanding of the university’s mental fitness profile, so we look at individual profiles but we also look at the whole institution.” That can even be mapped against other metrics, explains Nick, such as NSS scores – to show that student wellbeing has an impact across the board. 

But above all, universities must listen to their students. “There’s no bridging the gap between two people that aren’t really listening,” explained Loo, “universities must have two mouths and one ear – they need to listen to students.”

If you’ve been affected by an issue in this article, help is available.

Samaritans (UK and Ireland) can be contacted on 116 123 or email [email protected] or [email protected]

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA) can be contacted on 1-800-273-8255.

The crisis support service Lifeline (Australia) can be contacted on 13 11 14.

Visit www.befrienders.org for other helplines globally.

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