Student mental health – a time to act

12 September 2017

There is nothing new about the issue of student mental health. When I started in my previous role at Rethink Mental Illness ten years ago, I was moved to learn about the story of Bill Pringle, the son of the charity’s founder who developed schizophrenia while at University. In my own time as a student, while things were nothing like as open as they are today, I was aware of students who dropped out of study for what, with hindsight, were mental health issues. For me although University was, in general, a happy time I still remember clearly an episode of depression more significant than anything I have experienced subsequently. There is something about the student experience which makes it a particular point of vulnerability.

However it is clear that the scale of issues of modern universities is significant and growing. An important report, Not by Degrees, published last week by the think-tank IPPR, drew together key data which illustrates the issue. In 2015/6 more than 15,000 students disclosed a mental health problem, five times more than did so ten years previously. 94% of Higher Education Institutions report an increase over the last 5 years in demand for student counselling with 61% reporting an increase of more than 25%. While none of these numbers capture the full picture on student mental health they highlight a worrying trend.

Student mental health matters enormously to individuals and society. Mental Health problems and poor well-being create misery and undermine students’ academic performance. 1,180 students dropped out of their studies in 2014/5 on account of mental health problems, an increase of 210% on 2009/10. In some cases problems have a tragic outcome and the growth in the number of student suicides from 75 in 2007 to 134 in 2015 is an enormous wake up call to the seriousness of this issue.    

There are many reasons one could put forward for the increased numbers. Clearly to start with the massive growth in participation in Higher Education from less than 20% in 1990 to nearly 50% in 2014/5. Alongside this is a broadening of the range of people coming to University including more who have had a previous experience of using mental health services.  This draws out issues about universities’ preparedness to make reasonable adjustments for those who have identified mental health problems and also draws to attention the importance of encouraging a culture where students feel comfortable in disclosing a problem.

Beyond the question of numbers, today’s students report a difficult mix of academic, financial and social pressures which can prompt or exacerbate mental health problems. There are particular issues for the growing numbers of overseas students.

students in conversation


Universities are not oblivious to the problem but there is clearly more that can be done. Universities UK have been leading work to raise the profile of mental health and their #stepchange framework for a ‘whole university’ approach to improving student mental health is an important challenge to universities to make mental health and wellbeing a key strategic priority.

While resources are stretched there is a lot of scope for action if there is the will to do so. Raising awareness of mental health as an issue and making it easy and non-stigmatising for students to declare problems would help catch problems early and give the chance for universities to provide appropriate support for those with particular needs. A whole university approach to mental health training is also critical recognising the role played by a range of different groups including academic, administrative and security staff in supporting students who have mental health problems. Given the increase in demand for their services further investment in welfare provision will be important but done in a way which is embedded in a model which puts a stronger focus on a proactive approach to student welfare from academic and other course staff and also takes account of the mental health of university staff themselves.

The NHS also has an important role to play and I am delighted to working with Universities UK and others to identify best practice in how both sectors can best work together to ensure students have the support they need. The first crucial step is to sit round the table and invest in develop a shared understanding of the issues, perhaps through the mechanism of STPs. Models of link workers or embedded support as some Trusts, such as the Tavistock and Portman, have developed for schools may also be applicable for universities, offering the opportunity for clinical staff to help develop local skills and confidence in managing mental health issues and provide easy referral routes for those students who do need more intensive support.

Collaboration would also be improved by some system adjustments. GP practices in student areas are a key resource and source of expertise in supporting students with mental health problems and yet are currently penalised by a funding system weighted towards the needs of frail elderly populations.  Similarly incompatibility of information systems is one of a number barriers to students receiving seamless care between University at home and the recommendation to create a NHS Student Mental Health Passport suggested by the IPPR has much merit.

A final and crucial area of resource in this area rests amongst the student population itself. Young people, in my experience, value and understand mental health. With support and resource there is the opportunity to develop a capability around peer support which could be an important part of containing this issue. There is also an opportunity to wire the practical issues of supporting good mental health in universities with the many programmes of study which have an academic connection with psychology and mental health.

Universities like many organisations are waking up to the crucial role which promoting good mental health and wellbeing have to their purpose and effectiveness. As a NHS leader, UK taxpayer and parent of two University aged children I believe there is a compelling case to raise our game to ensure our young people have the best chance to realise their potential and to avoid the tragic sets of circumstances which lead too many to underperform, drop out of their studies or worst of all consider harming themselves or taking their own lives.

Read the Not By Degrees report.

Read more about #stepchange on the Universities UK website.

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Paul Jenkins

A blog post by Paul Jenkins, our Chief Executive.