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Mental health of university students

Student mental health has its own unique aspects that are not always understood or represented in the wider conversation on mental health. There are many challenges and changes faced by young people when attending university, including moving away from home and living independently for the first time, the pressure of succeeding academically while adapting to new surroundings, faces, and spaces, as well as becoming more financially independent and often undertaking a part time job alongside full time study.

University has been described as ‘the best time of our lives’, by 65% of adults who left university at least 15 years ago [1], which is a reflection of the common perception of the university experience. However, in the last decade there has been a 450% increase in student mental health declarations [2], with over a quarter of students in 2020 experiencing their state of mental wellbeing changing for the worse since starting higher education [3]. Although there is no direct explanation, student opinions point toward societal stressors on today’s youth such as the climate crisis, social media, poverty, and inequality, as contributing factors towards the increase in reports of mental health issues [4].

Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has, what some describe as, ‘decimated the university experience’ for students of the last few years, with 87% of students surveyed saying they felt their development had been negatively impacted by pandemic restrictions [5]. This includes not only academic development, but also the development of important life skills such as communication, motivation, confidence, resilience, and leadership. Beyond this, the atypical experience of social isolation and significant decrease in opportunities to meet and interact with new friends has undoubtedly taken a toll on the mental wellbeing of students since the start of the pandemic.

During the pandemic, students were encouraged to come to university despite restrictions and limits on in-person teaching being in place. Students petitioned for partial refunds to compensate for the lack of many aspects of the standard university experience, including access to facilities, societies, and peer interaction, as well as face to face teaching and any extracurricular involvements or support. Such requests were met with outrage from the media, with commentators claiming, ‘They do not pay tuition fees for a social life.’ [5], and that online teaching is ‘just as good if not better’ than face-to-face teaching. Whilst this is a matter of opinion, it is hard to argue that such limited access to what universities should provide, which undoubtedly goes beyond online lectures and seminars, is enough to support students to reach their course learning outcomes.

As mentioned above, pandemic restrictions alone caused negative implications on student mental health, so when factoring in stresses of academic success, social interactions and personal opportunities, future career planning, financial concerns, increased smartphone use [6] and negative media backlash [7], it is unsurprising why rates of anxiety and depression in students have significantly increased since the start of the pandemic [8].

We are currently seeing 1 in 5 students with a mental health problem, most commonly anxiety and depression [9], as well as a rise in body dysmorphia and eating disorders disproportionately impacting young girls [10]. Although an increase in reports of mental health problems may indicate that students feel more comfortable reaching out for help and disclosing with professionals the issues they are dealing with, there are still barriers in place for many students.

A report by Government Social Research in 2019 found a trend of students not wanting to seek support simply because they feel they do not deserve it or do not want to take limited resources away from someone else [11]. This report also found that the heavy workload of university students often stands in the way of obtaining professional help, where many students prioritise academic deadlines over mental health so as not to jeopardise academic achievements.

Another report from UCAS in 2021 found that nearly half of students (49%) do not share information about their mental health with their chosen university or college, largely due to concerns that it will impact their chances of receiving an offer [2]. This report also highlights the importance of understanding how mental health intersects with other characteristics and circumstances, with statistics showing some LGBT+ students being 6x more likely to share a mental health condition [2], as well as cultural stigma playing a preventative role for individuals of different backgrounds and genders.

The Chief Executive of UCAS, Clare Marchant, stated the importance of “eradicating outdated stigmas”, and “creating a culture of positive disclosure” between students and education providers. Despite campaigns striving to reduce stigma around mental health, such as Student Minds [12], there is still much to do to provide students with sufficient support in their journey through higher education. From providing students with more information about the services available, to sharing the voices and experiences of students, to educating universities and the general public about the complexities of student mental health beyond just stress. Although recent years’ statistics are not all that promising, the CEO of Student Minds shares an encouraging statement that “universities and colleges are working towards comprehensive, whole-institution approaches to mental health”. We hope to see a future of universities where “asking for help with your mental health [feels] as simple as saying you’re trying to find the right book in the library.”















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