The number of university students in Scotland seeking support for mental health issues has increased by two-thirds over five years, analysis shows.
The BBC asked universities across Scotland for the numbers of students seeking some form of support.
It found more than 11,700 students asked for help in 2016-17 compared with about 7,000 in 2012-13.
The 68% increased among students in Scotland was higher than the 53% total for the UK over the same period.
University counsellors and wellbeing staff told BBC Scotland that they deal with cases ranging from anxiety, depression, gender-based violence and body dysmorphia.
The figures – obtained by the BBC’s Shared Data Unit through freedom of information requests – showed that only 12 of Scotland’s 19 universities recorded how many students sought help for their health help over the five-year period.
The data shows:
The number of students seeking help for their mental health at the University of Edinburgh doubled over five years
The University of Glasgow experienced a 75% rise in students seeking help for their mental health between 2012-13 and 2016-17
The University of Stirling had a 74% rise in students seeking help for their mental health between 2012-13 and 2016-17
Glasgow School of Art experienced a 72% increase in students seeking help for their mental health over the same period
‘Not being able to return the favour had a toll on me’
Connor Smith was in his third year studying computer games development at the University of the West of Scotland when his close friend, who was also a student, took his own life.
“I was really shook up and didn’t know what to do with myself,” he said.
“I had struggled with my mental health before but the person who took his life was able to help me out of that, so not being able to return the favour had a toll on me.”
The university’s counselling team quickly offered to help Connor.
“I couldn’t speak to my family because I felt like I was burdening them,” he said.
“I couldn’t speak to my close friends either because they were going through the same thing.”
Connor said that he was struggling not only with the death of his friend but also his future prospects.
He said: “One evening I sat down and thought ‘what am I doing?’.
“I forced myself to work at university but I wasn’t in a good mind space. I really wasn’t enjoying what I was doing.”
Connor said he did not know what would have come of his life had it not been for the university’s support.
He said: “I wouldn’t have done so well.
“I might’ve quit university and if I did that, I don’t know what I would be doing.
“I had nothing lined up as a fall-back.”
Connor returned to counselling for a second time during his final year of studying. He was struggling with stress, overeating and had money worries.
He said: “[The support] wasn’t immediately available like before but, when I did get it, being able to speak to someone was so helpful.
“University was the best stretch of my life but easily the lowest I have been as well.”
‘I don’t like the term snowflake’
Ronnie Millar, director of counselling at the University of Edinburgh, said there is a “pernicious perfectionism” among students, which can affect their mental health.
He said: “When I was at university, there were no fees and we had student grants.
“Nowadays, more students have to work in part-time jobs and study, which puts a lot of pressure on them to succeed.”
Mr Millar said it was not helpful to label young people seeking help with terms such as snowflake, which imply they are less resilient than previous generations and too emotionally vulnerable.
He said: “I don’t like the term snowflake. I think it is a pejorative.
“In terms of resilience, some students struggle more than previous generations – but that’s not pointing the finger of blame.”
Mr Millar said that while there’s been a doubling in the male students coming forward for help for their mental health, the “proportion” has stayed the same over the five-year period.
“We say to students that [counselling] is not activity just for women, it’s for everyone.”
Social media bubble
Dr Phil Quinn, head of counselling and psychological services at the University of Glasgow, said that while there was greater awareness of the help available, a “saturated” NHS had resulted in fewer community services for students to access mental health support.
He said: “We have had a record year in terms of referrals to the service, of students starting their university careers with already diagnosed mental health conditions.”
The University of Glasgow employed 20 staff in 2016-17 – ranging from cognitive behavioural therapists and a consultant psychiatrist to a counselling manager – to assist with the 2,330 students that came forward that year.
Quinn believes that staff numbers are sufficient to meet demand, and that the increase in students coming forward for help is partly down to a “24-hour social media bubble” where they are exposed to “criticism, bullying, and abuse”.
Jackie Main, who is the director of student life at Glasgow Caledonian University, said it was not just the volume of students seeking support that was increasing but the complexity of the issues they presented with.
“We see a lot more crisis students than before,” she said.
“That could mean a student is actively self-harming, threatening suicide or requires being sectioned or hospitalised.
“Crisis students experience severe emotional distress, including panic attacks.”
At Glasgow Caledonian University, the number of students seeking support in 2016-17 hit 661, up 69% since 2012-13.
Ms Main added: “Anxiety and depression are the two big issues we’ve see increases in.
“We are not a crisis support service. We don’t have the resource and it is not our job. But we don’t let students fall through the net.”
Eight of Scotland’s universities provided the BBC with their total budgets for mental health services – which in some cases included services that don’t just support student mental health, such as a disability service – in the five years to 2016-7.
It revealed an increase of 31% from £2.4m to £3.1m.
The University of Strathclyde (which did not provide complete figures for the number of students seeking help between 2012-13 and 2016-17) was the only institution to report a decrease in its overall budget over the five year period, down by 18%.
A spokeswoman for the university put the drop down to “re-structuring” and emphasised that significant investment – about £400,000 – had been made since 2017, including the creation of three full-time and 12 part-time posts on the mental health and wellbeing teams.
She said: “We have also introduced an online mental health support programme, which works hand-in-hand with our dedicated advisers and therapists, to ensure support is available for all.”
‘Finding out you’ve failed all your classes is horrible’
Hannah Moles was in her third year of studying maths at the University of Strathclyde when she approached student services for help.
Not only had she failed her first set of exams but she was also caring for her grandmother who had dementia.
She said: “My brother and I were going over three times a week to make my gran dinner, get the shopping and keep her company.
“She was really lonely.”
Hannah said that when she wasn’t caring for her gran, working in a part-time job which paid for her flat, or sleeping, she’d be in the library trying to study.
“I was really tired and had things on my mind constantly,” she said.
“So I went along to support services to see if I could calm myself down. I wanted to improve my mental state before my next set of exams.”
Hannah said that eight weeks after approaching student services, she received her first counselling appointment.
However, by this point Hannah had failed her second round of exams – meaning she wouldn’t be allowed to return for the fourth year of her degree.
“Finding out you’ve failed all your classes is horrible especially when you have put in the work but it is still not enough,” she said.
Hannah said that she was grateful to her university for providing mental health support but more counsellors would help meet the increasing demand.
“I am lucky that I got the support I needed,” she said.
“But there are lots of students who seem to need help with their mental health. I just hope that universities can keep up with the increasing demand.”
’80 new counsellors’
The Scottish government’s most recent Programme for Government promised to provide more than 80 additional counsellors in further and higher education institutions over the next four years, with an investment of about £20m.
However, there is no indication yet how the funding will be split or which universities will receive more counsellors.
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said every student “should have access to emotional and mental well-being support”.
“We will work closely with the university and college sectors, NUS Scotland and other partners, on the implementation of the additional counsellors, and to ensure an integrated and wrap-around approach to student wellbeing in higher and further education.”
Details of organisations offering information and support with mental health issues are available at bbc.co.uk/actionline, or you can call for free, at any time to hear recorded information on 0800 888 809.
A Dundee charity that offers help and support to veterans through horticulture was officially opened by Lord Provost Ian Borthwick on Friday.
The official opening of the Dundee Therapy Garden came just months after it was damaged by vandals, who smashed windows of one of its potting sheds and spray-painted obscene drawings on the fence surrounding the former bowling club.
Volunteers and staff at the garden repaired the damage and have started donating vegetables and fruit grown there to foodbanks and other charities.
It employs three horticultural therapists who work with veterans of the armed forces and emergency services who suffer from mental health problems.
Charity chairman Alex Lyell said: “Military and armed forces personnel are exposed to many hazards.
“Not all survive. Of those that do many are wounded in body or mind. Our therapists are here to help those with mental health problems and also their families.”
He added: “This place would not work in any way were it not for the volunteer team who put so much effort into supporting this project.
“As well as our multi-talented volunteers, we benefit from the work parties who come from Castle Huntly and Dundee Social Justice. Taken together they bring a range of skills and effort which we could not possibly afford to purchase and without which the job would not get done.”
Mr Borthwick planted a tree to mark the official opening of the garden.
He said: “The creation of this garden is the finest example of the way you are responding to the contemporary needs of our veterans and ex-uniformed service personnel.
“Creating a space where they can improve their resilience provides overwhelming benefits of calm, well-being and positive coping strategies.
“The special features of this garden demonstrate the care and thought that has gone into the planning and design of this project.”
The garden supports up to 16 veterans at any one time.
Guests at Friday’s opening included Dundee City West SNP MSP Joe FitzPatrick.
He said he was pleased there had been no repeat of the vandalism that occurred in May.
He said: “This is a fantastic facility and you can really see the effort that has gone into transforming what was a piece of waste ground.
“It appears as if the community has really taken to this as its own.”
I can remember the night vividly. I was playing football with a few of my friends at the local pitches. The rage that hit me as we were knocked out of the tournament was like never before. I can remember being so angry that I kicked the bags next to the goals containing our stuff, smashing a friend’s phone screen in the process. The rest of the boys were laughing as I was going ballistic and this was all over a game of football – I regret it to this day but looking back it was just what I’d needed.
I knew at this point that there was something wrong with me. For the rest of evening, I said nothing apart from apologising to my friend about his screen and offering to pay for a new one. I had never wanted to cry so much in my life but I held it together as I didn’t want to totally embarrass myself in front of my friends.
As soon as I got home, I rushed upstairs, avoiding any conversation with my family. I knew exactly the person to ring, my gran. She was the best listener anyone could have hoped for – always looking to help anybody out. I poured my heart out, told her every issue I’d ever had in the run up to this point whether it be substance abuse, entire summers spent solely in my room or the fact that my confidence with girls was at an all-time low. I didn’t particularly want to do anything or go anywhere, even pulling out of a boys’ holiday with some of my best friends.
I was spending days at school, working at McDonald’s at the weekends and not enjoying a single minute of it. Rejection from Heriot-Watt University. Rejection from IKEA looking to upgrade my part-time job made me feel like a total loser.
I’d been made Head Boy at Penicuik High School but felt like a below average student and kept saying that I’d been appointed because “the staff felt sorry for me.”
As I sat there, blubbing away, my gran told me to see a doctor. It was her that took me to my first doctor’s appointment and then counselling session. We’d had my future counsellor, obviously I didn’t know at the time, from MYPAS (Midlothian Young People’s Advice Service) speak to the school and I had previously put my name down on the sly but the doctor arranged an appointment sooner for me knowing that I was in trouble.
The counselling was great. It’s an experience that I went into with the most pessimistic approach possible. I couldn’t have seen how talking to a complete stranger who didn’t know me, my family, friends or girlfriend was in any way going to benefit me given she couldn’t put names to faces and wouldn’t know them if she bumped into them in the street. My counsellor, Angela Robb, was excellent and didn’t care about them, this was about me and what I was going through. I saw her for 12 sessions, because when I’d got to the end of my initial 10, I felt as though I wasn’t necessarily ‘there’ yet so she was able to provide me with more sessions.
Robb said: “Counselling is unique to each client and whilst there are some common factors in every therapeutic relationship, I tailor how I work, taking my lead from each person. It’s key to successful counselling to be able to form safe and trusting therapeutic relationships. I feel that I do this and my client’s outcomes and feedback suggest this is true.”
But it was not only me going through such a horrendous ordeal. Some of the statistics and facts are alarming. According to menshealth.com, 9% of men go through depression on a daily basis, more than 6 million men. On top of that, 3 million men are hit with a form of anxiety every day.
Why is this the case? I spoke to Jane Anderson, a mental health nurse at Queen Margaret Hospital in Dunfermline.
“I have been a mental health nurse for eight years and have probably nursed hundreds of patients, some you’ll never see again and others I’ve nursed several times. As difficult as it can be some days it is also very rewarding.”
Anderson says: “We are a recovery focused ward and building a therapeutic relationship initially with patients can be challenging. However, when there is an understanding that our goals are the same – ie to get a better level of health and be discharged – working alongside a patient developing care plans to suit their individual needs and treating people with respect. I don’t expect thanks but even seeing someone smile when they have been so unwell is a fantastic feeling.”
She said there was still an unwillingness among men to admit that they have a mental health issue. “By the time they are admitted either informally of formally [sectioned under the mental health act] there is some recognition from the person that they are unwell. In the community, however, stigma is still very prevalent. The perception that males are raised to be stoic, brave and strong further enforces this belief.”
I asked her what factors could lead to compound mental health issues. “Lack of knowledge and understanding, embarrassment, feeling of failure, fear of letting others down and looking weak,” Anderson said. “This can be a generational issue, older males are less likely to be open about their mental health, younger males are more open although don’t necessarily accept it.”
Although there is more discussion of these issues in society than ever before, I began to wonder what more could be done to raise awareness. I asked Anderson if she felt that men could be reached by information during entertainment and sporting events.
She said: “I suppose the ‘problem’ is that mental health isn’t a nice happy topic so would turn people off from watching. We live in a consumer society, happiness and laughter brings viewers and readers and makes money for the big television and media companies.”
I’m a huge football fan and it amazes me when I see people literally living my dream who aren’t entirely satisfied and perhaps feel that they never will be. The cases in Scotland with David Cox of Cowdenbeath who was taunted by a rival fan, “Away and hang yourself and do it right this time,” and James Keatings (formerly of my beloved Heart of Midlothian) recently sharing his battles on Twitter despite playing for three of the country’s biggest clubs. Even a Barcelona academy graduate, Bojan Krkic, came out and said: “I had anxiety attacks but no one wants to talk about that. Football’s not interested.”
That speaks volumes to me about the prevalence of mental health problems. Krkic has graduated from one of the leading academies in world football, has played in several of Europe’s major leagues (Spain, Italy, England, Germany and the Netherlands) and has presumably amassed a healthy standard of living through an astronomical wage but still suffers.
It’s not a new problem. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was said to have reportedly experienced severe depression and supposedly contemplated suicide, often weeping uncontrollably. A key figure in the scientific revolution, Sir Isaac Newton, was seemingly psychotic, and prone to dramatic mood swings with numerous authors suggesting he was bipolar or schizophrenic. Vincent Van Gogh, one of the most famous artists of all time, was another affected. His enthusiasm for art came along with his fast-paced painting followed by deep depression and an apparent bipolar disorder.
In more recent times, many in the entertainment industry have committed suicide due to mental health problems. Frightened Rabbit’s singer Scott Hutchison and the actor Robin Williams are all examples of people who, seemingly with the world at their feet, who have taken their own lives. It should never have to be this way.
Some may see suicide as the brave way out but the most courageous act you can take if you are suffering is to do something about it yourself and surround yourself with a loving family, supportive friends and people that ultimately want to put you right.
And, please, please, get help.
Adam Kennedy is a student journalist at Fife College
If you need help
0800 83 85 87
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – for men
0800 58 58 58
Papyrus – for people under 35
0800 068 41 41
Childline – for children and young people under 19
Amy told the Kaye Adams Programme that her family had endured the “toughest eight months” since her brother’s death.
“He was struggling with his mental health but the shocking thing that we found was that he seemed fine,” she said.
“I know it sounds silly and trivial but in the last days before he died – I was the last person to see him – he was so happy.
“He had a niece and a nephew, my two children, and he was playing with them at the park, talking about plans to go to university and things.
“There was really no indication that that was the time it was going to happen. There were times we were more concerned about him, than when he did it.”
She said he had been to his GP shortly before he died and he was attending mental health services.
“The shocking thing about when it happened was that he was being treated and he was at his GP 10 days before he died, getting more anti-depressants,” she said.
Amy said he brother’s death was having a knock-on effect on the mental health of the rest of her family.
“My dad found my brother and he now obviously really struggles with that, he’s struggling with his own mental health.
“His GP’s reply to that is go to all the charities out there. He’s not even putting him on a waiting list for counselling or anything like that.
“I myself have started counselling from a local charity. I have the personality to go out there and do that. My brother wouldn’t have done that. I feel that my dad is a bit of history repeating itself.”
The family have been left alone to pick up the pieces of her brother’s suicide, she said.
“And it’s at that point where you feel your whole life is completely shattered and you don’t feel able to put one foot in front of the other, never mind help yourself to get the help that you need,” she added.
Mental health education
“So you’re just completely left – I felt anyway, through our own experience – that you’re just left to it by the police, by the GP.
“We had a family liaison officer from police who did nothing, to be honest. She said she had a list of phone numbers for us and she didn’t even give us those phone numbers.
“I just felt we were left to it as a family. I’m very lucky that I have such a supportive and fantastic family but it’s really been a struggle.”
Amy said she feels there is still a stigma surrounding mental health problems and suicide.
“I have had people saying, yeah he was depressed but why did he kill himself? Why did he go that far, why?
“They keep asking me why and I feel that’s down to not being educated about depression and about mental health, and also the stigma that surrounds it.
“The very fact that we’re saying people are choosing to die, I know it’s very complex, but a lot of people don’t choose to die. They have no choice left – it’s their only option.”
She said she feels some people think there should be some kind of “Hollywood ending” – they ask if there was a suicide note and whether there was a big thing that he was trying to get away from.
“I just tell them he was not very well and he died. He was killed by depression,” she said.
If you or someone you know has been affected by mental health problems, these organisations may be able to help.
Many more school staff need to be trained to help pupils with their mental health problems, according to a leading charity.
A survey by the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) suggested two-thirds of teachers felt ill-equipped.
SAMH chief executive Billy Watson called on the Scottish government to create a programme this year to train all school staff in mental health.
Ministers are carrying out an audit of school-based counselling.
Mental Health Minister Maureen Watt said: “Every child and young person should have access to emotional and mental well-being support in school.”
Mr Watson said teachers had shown an “appetite for engagement”.
SAMH conducted an online survey between August and September last year, to which more than 3,000 school staff responded, including teachers, classroom assistants, janitorial, admin and catering staff.
It said 66% of those who responded did not feel they had received sufficient training in mental health to allow them to carry out their role properly.
Only 12% of teachers who responded felt they had adequate training in mental health.
Just 1% of respondents recalled doing detailed work on mental health when they were student teachers.
A third said their school had an effective way of responding to pupils experiencing mental health problems.
Mr Watson said the volume and the pace of the responses from school staff to the survey was “quite remarkable”.
He said: “It tells us this is a really hot topic in schools and we can really make some difference in terms of the training that is available for all schools-based staff for the sake of our young people’s mental health.”
The charity chief claimed three children in every classroom experience a mental health issue before the age of 16 but often struggle to get the help they need.
He said this could affect their lives as adults.
There is currently no national strategy for how schools should deal with mental health.
The Scottish government said it had started a national review of personal and social Education – including consideration of the role of guidance and counselling in schools.
Mr Watson said the Scottish government was “well-intentioned” but he would like to see the action for training teachers in schools “accelerated”.
The charity would also like to see counselling services across all Scotland’s secondary schools by 2020.
Mental Health Minister Ms Watt added: “Education authorities and all those working in our schools have a responsibility to support and develop the mental well-being of pupils, with decisions on how to provide that support taken on the basis of local circumstances and needs.
“Some will provide access to school based counselling. Others will be supported by pastoral care staff and liaise with the Educational Psychological Services, family and health services for specialist support when required.”
Mental health first-aiders
Scott Pennock, the head teacher at Wallace High School in Stirling, said his school had focused on mental and emotional health – training more than a dozen staff to be mental health first aiders and involving pupils as mental health champions.
He said: “It is really important that the culture within the school is one of wanting to talk about mental and emotional health and being more open about it so we can identify issues and address them.”
The head teacher said his staff had embraced the training and did not find it an extra burden on top of their busy workload.
“All good teachers view pastoral care for pupils as the first part of their job,” he said.
“Teachers understand that if they are supporting young people in their mental and emotional wellbeing then that is helping them to learn and to achieve.
“To me, mental health is at the core of the teacher’s job and the core of their duties. It is not something you add on to it. I think our teachers genuinely see that and support it.”
Pamela Steel, a PE teacher at the school as well as lead teacher for mental health, said she was driving the project with “passion”.
She said: “Mental health first aiders are not trained as counsellors and we are not medically trained but we are there to support someone who is close to crisis or somebody who is just worried about how they are feeling.
“We can give them information or refer them to their GP or, most importantly, just give them time to talk about how they are feeling.”