Exam stress and debt coupled to lack of support is creating increased stress and depression
University students face a mental health crisis due to exam pressures and spiraling debts.
Student body NUS Scotland issued the stark warning as new figures reveal that students seeking counselling has nearly doubled in the past five years.
There were 8,180 requests for counselling support in 2016/17, up from 4,541 in 2012/13/
Although greater awareness of mental health support partly accounts for the rise in those seeking help, NUS Scotland says student mental health is worsening because of exam stress, part-time working and debt.
There are now 55 part time counsellors in Scotland’s universities compared to 21 in 2012.
The body is calling for increased resources from the Scottish Government to tackle the problem.
Liam McCabe, president of NUS Scotland, said: “Across Scotland, universities are seeing demand rocket, while resources are increasingly stretched.
“While everyone can experience mental ill-health, student life comes with huge pressures – from balancing study with part-time work to finding a new home or a job come graduation time.
“While it’s vital to tackle the causes of these pressures it’s also crucial that counselling services are in place to help those students whose mental health is affected.”
Andrew Reeves, chair of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, called for better support for students in universities.
“It is deeply concerning if universities are considering downgrading or reducing counselling services within their institutions, particularly surrounding complex mental health needs amongst students,” he said.
David Lott, deputy director of Universities Scotland, said the welfare of students was a top priority.
“We want to help our students with their problems as early as possible and students in need should speak to staff,” he said.
“We are aware that the demand for mental health services is rising at our institutions and that, more broadly, there are challenges faced by these type of services.
“We also know that poor mental health does not discriminate when it comes to age, status or background.”
The report said data on students was rarely shared fully between universities and local health services, which could lead to students accessing “treatment and support with incomplete information, or not accessing it at all”.
The report added students leaving their family homes to attend university often enrolled with a new GP.
They would then return home during holidays, meaning they were without their bespoke GP care for several weeks or months.
What is Universities UK suggesting?
Universities and local NHS services should communicate more about students who may need mental health services
Local services and universities should assess the need for mental health services for students in specific towns and cities
Institutions should promote positive mental health, make reasonable adjustments for students with pre-existing conditions, and reduce the stigma of mental health
Create “student mental health teams” with NHS providers to improve referrals to specialist services
Universities UK’s head of mental health, Professor Steve West, said the system had to be “radically changed”.
“If we ignore it we will have failed a generation,” he added.
“We will be setting ourselves up for huge costs and burdens on the NHS, but more than that we will be destroying lives.”
Chief executive of Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust Paul Jenkins said: “We need to improve the links between local NHS services and the support that universities provide.
“It is essential that these young people are provided with the right support at each step of the pathway.”
The National Union of Students (NUS) said that mental health services in higher education were “strained” and “at times non-existent”.
It welcomed the report, adding: “A joined-up and coherent approach between the NHS and universities is exactly what students need.”
‘Young adults struggle with transition to adult services’
By Hugh Pym, health editor
Some of the issues highlighted at universities are linked to the state of child and adolescent mental health services.
Young people who may have struggled to get treatment from these NHS services may find that problems resurface when they get to university.
Alternatively, the transition to adult mental health provision at 18 will coincide with the start of student life away from home – and that can be disorientating.
Universities have been criticised for not investing enough in counselling services and not promoting more general well-being in student life.
But they argue that a wider strategy involving the government and the NHS as well as higher education is essential.
With increased financial, academic and social pressures, there’s arguably never been a more stressful time for students – and that can have a big impact on their overall mental well-being.
Nearly five times as many students as 10 years ago disclose mental health conditions to their universities, according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), resulting in an increase in the need for access to their institutions’ mental health services.
However, an increase in demand means that many services are only able to offer students short-term solutions, such as brief counselling sessions or medication. Some students are also having to wait over four months for treatment at some universities.
Andrew, 19, a second-year history student at the University of Warwick, says he has been on the waiting list for his university’s counselling programme for over a year.
He said: “I didn’t want to sell myself as a suicide risk and I may have underplayed that to the extent that they thought ‘oh well, he’s fine, we’ll leave him’.
“Because I have a diagnosed condition, it means they’d have to commit to me every week for three years. I think they were looking more to help people with short-term issues.
“Being put on a waiting list alienates you from seeking help, this is the problem. It’s painfully clear when you talk to someone from the university counselling programme that they just didn’t have enough staff for the number of students.”
University counselling services are struggling to meet the overwhelming demand. The results of an IPPR survey of 58 UK higher education providers shows 94% have experienced an increase in demand for counselling services over the past five years, while 61% have seen demand increase by over 25%.
Dr Martin Cunningham, a GP and member of the Student Health Association, said: “The services are working at full stretch. The number of students presenting themselves with mental health issues has shot up and the services are working very hard, but they are funded in such a way that it is really short-term work.”
A lack of resources can mean that when students do receive counselling, it is sometimes not focused on long-term solutions.
Former physics and animations student Bertie, 25, who attended the universities of Kent, Sussex and UWE, said: “I’d receive counselling once every week or once every other week. I’d feel a bit better that day or for a few hours afterwards but apart from that, it was just back to the same.”
Other students report being offered medication as a form of treatment, without any strategies for dealing with mental health issues in the future.
One University of Kent student, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “They recommended I take SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) but I didn’t want to take any medication.
“I wish I was offered alternatives to medication and counselling that actually advised me on steps I could take in the future.”
Alan Percy, chair of the Heads of University Counselling Services, a specialist group of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), stressed that university counselling services are facing pressure to have their students’ needs met immediately.
“This means that many student services offer short-term fixes which are less helpful in the longer term,” he said.
“However, there is no magic solution. The danger would be for all the emphasis to be on services to offer speedy appointments but not to be able to offer the appropriate level of professional counselling for those who need it.”
Levels of mental illness, mental distress and low wellbeing among students in higher education in the UK are increasing,and are high relative to other sections of the population.
The University of Kent says it is working with the NHS to enable easier access to mental health services.
“When a student requests counselling, they are asked to complete a self-assessment form which then enables us to triage clients, where those with the most urgent need are given the highest priority,” it said in a statement.
“We also offer a daily crisis drop-in centre and self-help services such as Big White Wall, a 24/7 online mental health and well-being service.”
The University of Warwick also said it provides an extensive range of mental health services for its students, adding: “We have recently committed over £500k extra to support Well-being Support Services, including additional outreach workers alongside an enhanced range of services available to students.”
Jackie Doyle-Price, minister for Mental Health and Inequalities, said her department spent £11.6 billion on mental health services last year and is pledging to work with Universities UK to make sure students feel supported.
She said: “University is a pivotal time in people’s lives, which is why we are working closely with university leaders to make good mental health central to their student services.”