Students in higher education and their mental health

 In Mental Health, NHS Guidelines

In recent years there has been a worrying trend of increasing mental illness among students in England and Wales. With the release of this year’s A-Level results last week, there is now a brand new crop of young minds about to embark on the tumultuous journey through the twilight of their teenage years and, if they so choose, University.

So what will this journey hold in store for them?

University or higher education can be a time where young people can thrive and come out with a qualification that will stand them in good stead of getting their dream job. However, according to recent surveys by YouGov and the National Union of Students (NUS), this scenario is increasingly seen in the minority.

If a student gets a good grade in their degree subject, there is a chance that they will eventually get their dream job. But this research suggests that the route to get this qualification, for a lot of students, is anything but easy and can play havoc with students’ mental health.

Overall participation in higher education has increased from 3.4% in 1950, to 8.4% in 1970, 19.3% in 1990 and 33% in 2000.

For years the landscape of university has been changing. Overall participation in higher education has increased from 3.4% in 1950, to 8.4% in 1970, 19.3% in 1990 and 33% in 2000. Therefore, with the sheer number of people going to university, the inherent value of having a degree has been diluted and the importance of achieving a good grade has increased exponentially. This will cause much more stress for students and could lead to mental conditions such as depression and anxiety, which have been cited as the two most common mental health problems in students.

Financing a degree is another source of stress for students, with the growing cost of degrees putting even more pressure on students to succeed. In the UK, tuition fees were introduced in 1998, leading students to think more about debt and, for the first time, how to finance their choice of degree. Fees were increased in the academic year 2006/ 07 (2007/ 08 in Wales) and again further in 2012. Currently the maximum a university can charge for being on a course is £9,000 per year, leading to a debt of £27,000 from a standard 3-year degree from tuition fees alone. Then there is rent, food and other living costs on top, and debt can grow yet further.

This is a lot of pressure to put on an 18 year old, leaving home for the first time. An article from the independent suggested that a staggering 63 per cent of students are worrying about their finances all the time or very often, something which is set to rise with further increases of tuition fees.”

Also, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggest that there has been a large increase in student suicide, with 130 suicides in England and Wales in 2014, compared to 97 in 2007. This increase coincides with the fee rises in 2007 and 2012.

Couple this statistic with the increasing pressures on students, there is cause for concern regarding students’ mental well-being.

But with the increasing pressures facing young adults ranging from finance, success, job prospects, family pressure, and leaving home for the first time, is it really surprising that more and more students are suffering from mental health conditions?

What does the recent YouGov poll tell us about student’s mental health?

A recent YouGov poll gives us an insight into how students are coping at university. More than a quarter of students (27%) reported having a mental health condition, with female and LGBT students being more likely to suffer from one, as shown in the graph below.


Student's mental health


The two most common types of conditions found in students suffering mental ill health were depression (77%) and anxiety (74%), with 6 in 10 students feeling that levels of stress at university adversely affected their day to day life.

In the YouGov poll 71% of students said the predominant cause of this stress was primarily studying. Then 39% said their stress was caused by their concern of finding a job after university, closely followed by family stresses (35%).

84% of students accepted that mental illness is as serious as physical illness.

An encouraging point from the survey, however, was that 84% of students accepted that mental illness is as serious as physical illness. This is promising as it shows a shift in views compared to year’s gone by regarding perceptions on mental health.

Overall this poll, and findings from other resources should be a serious indicator that our nation’s students have an increased risk of suffering from mental illness compared to students of the past.

University Mental Health Day

University Mental Health Day (UMHD) takes place on the 1st March and encourages everyone within in the student community to raise awareness of students mental wellbeing and support them during their time in higher education. Student Minds and UMHAN run University Mental Health Day jointly.

The theme this year of University Mental Health Day is “Community”. This highlights how tutors, students, support staff and the wider community within higher education can all do their bit to ensure a positive mental health community is created.

Within this community, Student Minds and UMHAN hope to:

  • Equip students and staff to run events in the university community to improve students’ awareness of support and ability to seek it, tackle loneliness, and promote a sense of belonging.
  • Encourage university students and staff to understand the role of the environment and community in protecting your mental health. 
  • Reduce health inequality for students in the wider community.

How can you cope with the increasing pressures of university?

With this in mind, here are a few best practice tips from the NHS to help students cope with the stresses of University:

  • Assess exactly what in your life is making you anxious. For example, is it exams, money or relationship problems? See if you can change your circumstances to ease the pressure you’re under.
  • Try to have a healthier lifestyle. Eat well, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, cut down on alcohol and spend some time socialising as well as working and studying.
  • Try not to worry about the future or compare yourself with others.
  • Learn to relax. If you have a panic attack or are in a stressful situation, try to focus on something outside yourself. Also, you could try switching off by watching TV or chatting with someone.
  • Relaxation and breathing exercises may help.
  • Try to resolve personal problems by talking to a friend, tutor or someone in your family.

If problems persist, then students should visit their University mental health services or seek help from a medical professional. 

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