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Supporting Mental Health Problems in Universities

Last updated on 20th December 2023

University mental health statistics make for some tough reading, a 2022 report has found that as many as four in five university students are impacted by mental health.

Becoming a university student is supposed to be one of the most exciting and happiest times of your life but this time is also full of challenges and new and difficult situations. As a result, many students struggle with a range of mental health issues, and this problem seems to be increasing at a rate that is causing widespread concern.

A poll carried out in 2018 on 400,000 students and reported by the Guardian newspaper suggested that 38,000 students were experiencing high levels of distress and illness.

According to mental health charities such as the Mental Health Foundation and MIND, a more proactive approach needs to be taken by the universities, with counselling services and mental health support available to all.

The pressure of university

University pressure is often seen as something that mainly affects first year students. This group are under a lot of pressure after all because this is such a life-changing and significant time of their lives.

Common pressures include loneliness and home sickness; for many first year students, it is the first time they have moved away from home. Other pressures include the need to make friends and to fit into a social group. For students that are shy this pressure can feel overwhelming.

University can be an extremely lonely place for many students and the fact that everyone is aware that this time should be crammed full of new experiences and enjoyment only ramps up the pressure if the student actually feels miserable and unable to cope.

In addition, there is the added pressure of studying, meeting deadlines and completing written work that may seem more difficult and challenging than anything previously experienced. Many university students come from an environment where they have been recognised and supported as being one of the intelligent top students whereas now they may feel out of their depth.

Money can also be a major concern. Many students worry about finances and handling their money and sticking to a budget. This can be difficult for the majority of students who have been living and been looked after in the family home.

The truth is that being at university is full of challenges in every aspect of life and although many students make a successful adjustment it can feel frightening and overwhelming.

It is important to remember that not all first years are young 18-year-olds. Many students who struggle with their mental health in the first year may be mature students or people who have had a break from studying such as for a couple of years working or a gap year.

Although this group may feel confident socially and more experienced than 18-year-olds when it comes to looking after themselves, older students often find the pressure of studying very hard and stressful.

Second and third year students are also at risk from mental health issues

Although much of the focus on student mental health is aimed at first years, people who are later on in their university studies are also at risk. The survey that polled 400,000 students found that 2nd and 3rd year students reported high levels of psychological distress including substance abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts.


The effects of poor mental health on students

Experiencing poor mental health while at university can have a life-changing impact. Students with mental health issues are more likely to drop out thus ruining their future life chances, but even more worrying is the high rate of student suicides.

University mental health statistics are disturbing. According to the Office of National Statistics on average there are 100 suicides each year carried out by university students across the UK. This equates to a student suicide every 4 days.

Some universities seem to be more at risk than others. For example, Bristol University alone saw 11 suicides in 2018 which has caused people to question whether the mental health support provided by Bristol University was adequate. However, the suicide rate seems to affect all universities including Oxford and Cambridge.

In line with the general statistics on suicide, male students are more at risk although this does not necessarily mean that female students are safe.

How can a mental health issue be detected?

If a student does not report a mental health problem, there are warning signs that may suggest that there is a problem:

  • A student who is suffering from depression or anxiety may turn to alcohol or substance abuse.
  • They are likely to miss lectures and fail to turn in work or assignments.
  • They may seem like the life and soul of every party and seem to have friends but be otherwise disengaged with ordinary student life.
  • Alternatively a student suffering from a mental health issue may just pass unnoticed and ignored, thus making the problem worse.

How to support students with mental health problems

There are ways to support students with their mental health issues.

Tutors and wellbeing support teachers should take a pastoral role and help individual students have a better time at university by offering a friendly ear. If a student has not delivered his or her work on time and seems to be struggling, offering strategies that will help remove the worry of the coursework will help reduce the pressure.

If a student is having problems with work it is important to help him or her get back on track quickly before it becomes an insurmountable problem. If the student knows that you are there to offer support rather than a “telling off”, he or she is far more likely to explain why there is a problem. In most cases, failure to submit work and attend lectures is not about laziness; it denotes that the student is in crisis and unable to cope.

In addition, sometimes a friendly word and some well-informed advice and support will be enough to smooth out early mental health problems before they fully develop.

Many students struggle with fitting in and loneliness, so suggesting new activities and groups they can join may help. All universities have many societies and clubs and although this can be overwhelming at Freshers’ Week when everything is new, there is literally something for everyone.

Suggesting new activities and associations, whether it is joining a music society, a charity fundraising group or doing more exercise, may help the student find their niche at university.

It is also important to encourage a student to reach out and not suffer in silence. If a student knows you are always there to support them and listen to any problems that they may have, it will provide a vital support through the difficult times.

Encourage the student to reach out to counselling and mental health support. All universities have a duty of care to their students via pastoral support. There are also organisations that support mental health specifically for students. Student problems are different to the problems experienced outside the university world, so require different solutions.

Upset girl at university struggling with her mental health talking with therapist

Supporting students who already have a mental health condition

Although many students have no previous history of a mental health condition prior to attending university, this is not always the case. For students who are already undergoing mental healthcare treatment it is important to plan ongoing care in advance.

Before leaving for university it is important for the student to speak to his or her current GP or Community Mental Health Team so that any notes / medication can be forwarded to the new doctor.  The current doctor should also write a covering letter to the new GP fully explaining the position.

Mental health organisations that help to support student mental health

For students who are already having support for a mental health condition, the University Mental Health Advisors Network (UMHAN) is a valuable resource that can also provide a wide range of self help solutions.

UMHAN is a network of mental health professionals specifically working in education, providing practical support to students experiencing mental health difficulties. There may be entitlements available to students with a mental health condition. The Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) is available to students with a mental or physical health condition. UMHAN can advise on this and also help students to find people to talk to about issues relating to mental health and study.

Student Minds is a UK student mental health charity. It offers all types of mental health support including activities such as university staff who run workshops and support groups where students can come together and talk about their mental health. Peer support can be very effective, and these types of support group will improve mental wellbeing as well as reduce feelings of isolation. Student Minds also offers help and advice to friends and family who may be worried about a student’s mental wellbeing.

Student Minds can help students find further support both off and on campus such as counselling and visiting the local GP.

University Counselling Service. All universities offer a counselling service and you can find details of this via your university’s website. The service is often over subscribed and there is likely to be a waiting list but counselling can be very helpful. In general, counselling sessions last around an hour and students are advised to prepare for it by writing down the issues beforehand in order to maximise the session.

Blurt It Out is a mental health charity that focuses on depression. It is available to all ages and people in all walks of life, however, the charity also runs a programme that is specifically aimed at young people between the ages of 4 and 24. This is the Blurt Peer Project which aims to support young people proactively by training student peers to become trained in mental health support. Research has found that younger people tend to identify with and listen to their peers more than other age groups so this can be an effective strategy that works. The Blurt Peer Project aims to help students improve their mental wellbeing and improve resilience and self care.

The Student Union can also offer advice about mental health wellbeing and where to seek help. In addition, if a student’s wellbeing is being affected by a specific issue such as accommodation or finance, the Student Union may be able to help with practical advice.

The Samaritans offers a programme called Step By Step which is specially aimed at universities. Step By Step offers support to people affected by a suicide or an attempted suicide attempt.

A university suicide has a wide reaching effect upon other students and staff members. Step By Step can offer practical advice to everyone involved including helping the university handle the media and helping to open up communication so that everyone at university can recover following the tragedy.

For students who are feeling suicidal, the Samaritans play an important role in prevention. The charity is available to call 24/7, so it is crucial that contact information for the Samaritans is visible around the campus. For many people, calling the Samaritans is the final plea for help, so ensuring that all students know that someone is available to listen may help prevent a tragedy.

In conclusion

Good mental health is key to wellbeing and for university students who are suddenly faced with a wide range of new experiences and challenges, it can be difficult to maintain.

Universities can be big impersonal places but it is important to ensure that all students know that support and help is out there if they need it.

There is no stigma to admitting to experiencing mental health problems. We all go through difficult times in life when we need some support. The key to supporting mental health in university students is to ensure that everyone knows that help is there if it is needed and to provide fast and immediate action when it is.

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About the author

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Jane Higgins

Jane works with the CPD Online College to produce great articles and has been with us since 2019. Specialising in numerous areas of content, Jane has a vast writing experience and mainly works on our health & safety and mental health posts. Outside work Jane enjoys playing music, learning foreign languages and swimming in the sea even when it is far too cold for comfort!

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