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.
Every day in Scotland, an average of two people die from suicide.
It is the leading cause of death among people aged 20-34 in the UK – with the rate considerably higher among men.
Sadly, it’s an issue all too familiar to many in Dundee – so much so that it’s led to intense scrutiny of local mental health services and an inquiry being launched. All last week, events were held to highlight the issue for Suicide Prevention Week. As part of that, the Tele has spoken to four people who have attempted to take their own lives, about their experiences and how they came through them.
They’re all members of the Blue Wings group, set up in Dundee by Robbie Russell after his frustration grew at the “underfunded” mental health services on offer in Tayside.
The group previously led calls for patrols to be introduced to the Tay Road Bridge, following a number of incidents involving people contemplating suicide or taking their lives on the crossing.
Dave Johnston, 43, from Claverhouse, became aware of suicide in a previous workplace.
He said: “Part of my day-to-day work involves taxying when my other operation is out of season so I quite regularly meet people in the taxis who experience mental health problems and suicidal tendencies. My own personal belief is that people are let down by the system.
“Right now if someone goes up to Carseview, they’ll be turned away on the vast majority of occasions without any treatment at all.”
Although the issue is common throughout Tayside, Dave said he has seen people around him being afraid to admit their dark thoughts to the authorities, calling for more effort to bring understanding to the system.
Dave said: “I’ve got experience from speaking to somebody very recently who had attempted their own life and were taken to Carseview.
“They were taken overnight and their only experience the next morning was that a police surgeon spoke to them and asked if they still felt suicidal. Nobody in their right mind would say yes because they don’t want to be kept in police custody and they were released that morning.”
He said including people who have experienced suicide themselves is needed in the system.
He said: “The folk that deal with these issues day in and day out may have ideas about it but perhaps the best people to talk to them and give them advice are the people that are suffering from the problems themselves.
“We still live in a very macho environment where it’s seen as a weakness to speak about these types of things. It’s not a weakness, it’s an illness.”
Robbie Russell, 28, from Arbroath, said he became angry and lonely during his teenage years, eventually attempting suicide at age 16 for the first time.
He said: “I was fine when I was younger, but when I got to my teenage years, I was quite angry.
“I was seen as a bad kid.
“I was never recognised as someone with mental health issues. It followed me into my late teens – I started getting arrested and turned to drugs as a shield to get out of it but it didn’t work.”
Robbie said he struggled to open up about the way he was feeling.
He added: “It was instilled into me about pride. You’re a man, you’re not really supposed to have feelings.
“That’s not the case – we’re all human and everyone feels an emotion and everyone should be allowed to express it.
“The first person I told was my mum. She’s always been my rock, I have always been a bit of a mummy’s boy. She has talked me out of a lot of situations.”
At his most vulnerable, Robbie started hiding under his bed and felt like he was not being taken seriously.
“I was let down by the system. Back then, there was far too much ignorance – everyone was just playing you off like you’re an attention-seeker,” he said.
Robbie later founded the Blue Wings group to help others who were feeling suicidal with the hope of developing the Facebook group into a charity.
“I started getting a lot better and opening up a lot more than I used to,” he said.
“I started accepting things a lot more.”
Aged 13, Tina Grant, from Douglas, tried to take her own life for the first time. She said she would do anything to get the pain she was feeling out of her head.
Tina said: “I felt dead for such a long time. I tried to do pills, slit my wrists, drink, everything.
“I didn’t know how to deal with it all so I thought that was the only way to do it.
“When you’re in a dark place and have so many bad things going on in your life, you just want to escape it.”
Tina, now 35, went through her suicide attempts for two years before telling her mum.
She said: “I hid it from my mum and stepdad for a long time and when they actually saw the razor on my wrists, that is when they got the help for me when I was about 15.
“I never really had anyone to talk to and speaking to someone is such a helpful tool.”
Although Tina admits she has not fully recovered from feelings of suicide, she is able to face the day more easily after opening up to other people.
She said: “I still deal with it now but I’m dealing with it a lot better because instead of turning to drink, I talk to my friends and family and that makes me feel so much better.
“It was like a weight had been lifted off me and I felt like a new person.
“I felt happier, freer and alive.”
Now, Tina is looking to get into care work and help others who are feeling suicidal.
She said: “If nobody knows of the groups available to you, go online and talk to people – it’s the best thing to do. Nobody is alone.”
Gavin Elliot, 20, from Broughty Ferry, has been on the edge of the Tay Road Bridge three times and still feels like he has not overcome his suicidal thoughts.
He said: “I was in care since I was about seven. Life was tough from the beginning.
“I tried multiple times to kill myself – whether it was sticking scissors to my throat, jumping off the bridge, trying to hang myself, trying to suffocate myself.
“Anything that I could try, I tried it because I thought the only way out was to end myself.”
He added: “Last time I tried was two years ago when my father passed away.
“I was at the edge of the Tay Road Bridge on the other side of the barrier when police came and they pulled me away.”
Gavin said he kept himself hidden from the world and only started talking to others when his support workers noticed.
He said: “Every day I’d wake up in the morning and think, why? What’s the point in me waking up when it is the same old routine every day? I would spend months on end in my house alone with no visitors – no physical contact, nothing. I sat alone and blocked everyone out.”
After ending up on the bridge, he was taken to Dundee’s Carseview mental health facility but said he did not receive much support.
“People at Carseview would look at me, say I was OK and send me home without any treatment whatsoever,” he claimed.
To get his life back on track, Gavin said he turned to BMXing which has helped him through his difficulties.
MEDICS failed to help a suicidal man who contacted health services eight times in six days before he died, his partner has claimed.
Luke Henderson’s girlfriend Karen McKeown is now calling for an urgent review of mental health support services for men in Scotland.
Karen tried to get help for Luke almost every day in the week before his death.
Despite phoning NHS24, going to A&E, contacting GPs and other community services on eight different occasions, the couple were either turned away, referred elsewhere or told that Luke showed no signs of mental health problems.
NHS Lanarkshire’s initial review said their staff had followed procedure and “consistently did not find any evidence” that Luke wanted to take his own life. However, they have now launched a fresh investigation.
Luke spoke to at least 11 different NHS employees between December 22 and December 28 last year. Karen found him hanging in the home they shared with their two children on December 29.
The 30-year-old’s calls for better men’s mental health services has been backed by her MSP, Monica Lennon, who has urged NHS bosses to further investigate.
Karen knew something was wrong with Luke when he started saying colleagues at his construction job were spying on and filming him, putting videos on the internet and laughing at him.
He had stopped sleeping, said he could hear voices in his head and could see things which weren’t there.
Karen, from Motherwell, said: “If they had done their jobs as medical professionals, the way I did mine as his partner and mother of his children, I believe Luke would still be here. My children would still have their dad.
“They failed him. I felt like he was planning to take his own life.
“There were loads of warning signs – he was asking my cousin to look after me if anything happened to him, he was telling me how much he loved me and kept saying sorry for things.
“I told doctors this, but they wouldn’t listen.”
In a review conducted by NHS Lanarkshire, officials ruled that they had followed procedures and their staff found no signs of mental illness, nor believed Luke was at risk of suicide.
However, medical notes from December 23, seen by The Sunday Post, show some staff who first saw Luke at Wishaw General A&E thought he was at risk of harming himself and that he was hallucinating.
They recorded in their notes that Luke was “hearing voices in head…feels wants to kill self”, “experiencing delusions” and was “an immediate risk to himself”.
When he first went to the emergency unit, he was categorised as a high-risk patient, but less than two hours later after being seen by a nurse, it was ruled that he showed no signs of having a “depressive illness or psychotic disturbance”.Medical staff decided that, because Luke said he was looking forward to Christmas, he was making plans for the future and was not suicidal.
Karen said: “Christmas was less than two days away by that point, it didn’t mean he was ‘forward planning’ as they said.
“I kept telling them he wasn’t making any plans after Christmas.
“On Christmas Eve I had to take him to see a psychiatric nurse, but they wouldn’t do anything. They told us to go to an addiction service, which re-opened on the 28th.”
Toxicology reports showed there were no traces of alcohol or drugs in Luke’s body when he died. He had suffered addiction issues in the past.
In 2011, Luke attempted to take his own life and in 2015 admitted himself into hospital as he was hearing voices.
After being an in-patient for a week, he was given medication to help him.
Karen said: “We got through Christmas Day and Luke made it all about us, and the four of us being together. That day he managed to sleep for the first time in a long while. He fell asleep on the couch but he was still not acting normally.”
Again, on December 27, the couple, along with some of Luke’s family members, went back to A&E after he continued to say he could hear voices and was seeing dogs in his house.
She said: “The staff didn’t speak to me or Luke’s family at all. They just spoke to Luke, and said nothing was wrong and he wasn’t showing signs of being mentally unwell.
“The next day I took him to the addiction services they told us about, but it was just a form-filling exercise and they didn’t give us any help.
“They said we would have to wait for someone to get in touch at a later date.”
On the day before his death, Karen took Luke to two GPs to try to get him an urgent appointment, before taking him to her own doctor and registering him there.
The couple were told an appointment was available that afternoon, but when they returned a second receptionist said there had been a mistake and they were sent home.
That night, Karen woke to her eight-year-old son, also named Luke, crying. She saw that her partner was not in bed and when she went to her son’s room she discovered he was awake.
Karen said: “I asked him why he was awake and he said that daddy had come in to say goodnight. That’s when I went downstairs and saw Luke’s body. I just started screaming.”
Iain Mackenzie, acting general manager for mental health services, said: “We are aware of this tragic matter and undertook a review in line with Health Improvement Scotland guidelines, which aims to identify any learning points.
“Members of our patient affairs team have also subsequently met with Ms McKeown with a view to further investigate the issues raised by her, and the team is also liaising with the other services involved.
“The investigation is still ongoing and, once complete, we will share the findings with Ms McKeown.”
Vulnerable Scots falling through net
In the last five years, more than 2,600 men have taken their own lives in Scotland, with more than 500 dying last year.
MSP Monica Lennon says too many people dealing with mental health problems, alcohol or drug issues are falling through the net, and is continuing to call for an investigation into why Luke was failed.
She said: “Luke’s tragic death is a painful loss to his family and Karen is one of the bravest people I have met. Asking for help should guarantee access to medical treatment but when it comes to addiction and mental health, vulnerable people too often are left to fall through the cracks.
“Nothing will bring Luke back but Karen is courageously drawing on her family’s experience to prevent others having doors closed in their faces. Karen continues to have my full support.
“Vulnerable people are being failed because people with lived experience are not being listened to.”
Mental health services for children and young people are under pressure.
IT was heartening to see one of the first actions of the new Scottish Government Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman, being to recognise as “completely unacceptable” the fact that one in five children and young people seeking mental health treatment are having this rejected.
As an organisation that campaigns to improve mental health services, we have previously expressed our concerns over the increased demand on child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) and that fact that such a high number of these children and young people who are referred for treatment have it rejected, often with no explanation or with no alternative support provided. This leaves many thousands of vulnerable children and young people in a state of limbo.
An audit commissioned by the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) and NHS Information Services Division was undertaken on behalf of the Scottish Government to review this situation. What is clear from the recently published report is that for many of these young people their needs are not viewed as being severe enough to warrant CAMHS; however appropriate alternative support is lacking.
Many children, young people and their families highlighted that they have received a rejection letter within a very short timescale, and feel angry, aggrieved, cheated and let down due to a feeling that no proper assessment process has been undertaken.
More disturbingly, it appears that some clearly require treatment but this is being rejected, often without any face-to-face meeting with a specialist. In fact, only 31 per cent of those who undertook an online survey got a face-to-face assessment, and the majority were rejected on the basis of a written referral.
It was disturbing to read the harrowing first-hand accounts of the experiences of young people and their families. This includes some believing that they would not be seen unless they were suicidal or at risk of harm, and the impact that failure to get good enough treatment has on mental health, often with the situation for them worsening and then entering a crisis situation. There was evidence also of those who were self-harming, but whose condition was not deemed severe enough to warrant treatment. Situations such as this are wholly unacceptable.
It is pleasing to see the Cabinet Secretary fully accepting the 29 recommendations outlined in the report on these rejected referrals and create a new CAMHS Taskforce, headed by mental health expert, Dr Dame Denise Coia, backed with £5 million of investment to reshape and improve CAMHS.
One of the key recommendations in the report was the requirement for increased investment in CAMHS and the provision of alternative support services, for those who may not require CAMHS, with mandatory signposting to these. And yet we have seen cuts to these support services over the years. If we are to deliver the support these children and young people need we need greater investment not only in CAMHS, but in such alternative services.
It was heartening to also note the desire for a nationwide provision of schools-based services recognised. Investing a fraction of the mental health budget on school-based counselling services, for example, helps to keep children in school and avoid unnecessary and often stigmatising mental health diagnoses.
Issues around mental health represent one of the greatest public health challenges of our time and we urge the new Cabinet Secretary to put mental health at the very heart of the Scottish Government health agenda, providing the high quality mental health support that our children and young people deserve.
NHS staff have been offered counselling to cope with the trauma of watching a BBC documentary criticising an under-fire mental health unit.
Experts have been put on standby to support doctors and nurses at the Carseview Centre, in Dundee , who may be adversely affected by the hard-hitting programme.
Last night relatives of young patients who either committed suicide or were bullied at the unit reacted furiously to the decision
One mum told us: “It’s one rule for one and one rule for another – what about support and counselling for relatives and family of those who died or were bullied there? There’s nothing for the real victims.”
The BBC Scotland programme – that aired last night – interviewed patients who alleged they’d been pinned to the floor and bullied on wards where illegal drugs were rife.
They claimed Carseview staff used face-down restraints violently and repeatedly over the past five years.
The centre has about 80 beds and is the biggest mental health unit in Tayside treating hundreds of patients every year.
It is the subject of an independent inquiry into mental health services after families of suicide victims campaigned for changes.
Last week NHS bosses sent an email offering support to any staff affected by the programme.
It said: “The BBC has advised us that they have spoken to 29 patients and families and the programme will contain patient testimonies which allege bullying, inappropriate use of restraint and widespread use and sale of illegal drugs.
“This is obviously going to be an upsetting time for staff and so the Mental Health Leadership team, along with staff side representatives, will be meeting with staff at Carseview over the coming days to discuss the programme and offer support to anyone who may be affected by this.”
It added that an expert from the Wellbeing Centre at the city’s Royal Victoria Hospital, would also be on hand to offer any “additional” support.
But last night Mandy McLaren and Jackie Hawes – whose sons Dale and Harry committed suicide while being treated by Carseview – demanded to know why victims’ relatives weren’t offered help.
Mandy said: “There has been nothing whatsoever for the families from NHS Tayside. All they’ve done is say sorry, pay expensive lawyers to defend FAIs and let us get on with it. Start doing your jobs properly and sort these issues out.”
While Jackie added: “We’ve had no support since Harry died, we’ve just been left to get on with it. It’s not fair. It’s fine to support the staff, but offer help to the grieving families too. “
“I was taken away from normal life essentially at an age where I was half-formed,” Blake said, referencing his newfound fame he experienced in his early 20s after tracks like ‘Wilhelm Scream’ and ‘Limit to Your Love’ were released. “Your connection to other people becomes surface level. So if you were only in town for one day and someone asked you how you are, you go into the good stuff…which generally doesn’t involve how anxious you feel [or] how depressed you feel.”
Additionally, he discussed how impactful his (bad) eating habits were on tour, a complaint often felt by touring artists. “I would say that chemical imbalance due to diet and the deterioration of my health was a huge, huge factor in my depression and eventual suicidal thoughts,” he said. “I developed [dietary] intolerances that would lead to existential depression on a daily basis. I would eat a certain thing and then all day I would feel like there was just no point.”
Additionally, and possibly alluding to his previous statements about being labeled a “sad boy”, Blake dispelled the common notion that an artist must suffer in order to succeed, creatively. “There is this myth that you have to be anxious to be creative, that you have to be depressed to be a genius. I can truly say that anxiety has never helped me create. And I’ve watched it destroy my friends’ creative process too.”
Blake also shared his experience with an experimental treatment called EMDR therapy, which uses rapid eye movement to allow patients to “reprocess” traumatic experiences. Along with his girlfriend, with whom he lives with in Los Angeles, Blake explained that he found success in simply cutting ties with negative sources. “Honestly, a lot of catharsis just came in telling lots of people to fuck off. And saying no. Saying no to constant touring. No [amount of] money will ever be enough.”
He concluded his time on the panel by pointing out that “we’ve reached a critical point”. “We are the generation that’s watched several other generations of musicians turn to drugs and turn to excess and coping mechanisms that have destroyed them. And there are so many high-profile people recently who’ve taken their own lives. So we, I think, have a responsibility to talk about it and to remove the stigma.”
Read more about DJs and artists opening up about mental health here