under pressure

More young people are attending university than ever before, but more are dropping out too

23rd January 2019

University is now supposed to be the great social leveller, with more young people than ever before entering higher education. Students from all backgrounds come together to party, rack up new social media followers and scrape a decent degree despite half-hearted attendance, right? Well, there’s still a long way to go.

Too few people from disadvantaged upbringings are applying to Russell Group universities, while six Cambridge colleges admitted fewer than 10 black or mixed-race students between 2012 and 2016. But, on the whole, 49.8% of people under 30 entered advanced studies in 2017 and the largest ever proportion of 18-years-olds got a place at university. 

Better access to higher education is a great thing, surely? But with the privilege of this comes the burden of pressure, especially when many of those making the decision to spend thousands of pounds on a three or four-year course are still teenagers.

An influx of worrying stats prove the need to be concerned about student mental health. For a start, around three quarters of adults with a mental illness first experience symptoms before the age of 25, and the number of students who disclosed a mental health condition to their university in 2016 was five times higher than it was a decade before. The IPPR also found that over the past five years, 94% of universities experienced a sharp increase in the number of people trying to access support services. This all helps to make sense of the fact that there is an increase in the rate of first-year drop outs, with around 26,000 students discontinuing their studies in 2016.

Some might argue that these numbers are only increasing because society is becoming more emotionally literate and comfortable in talking about mental health than ever before, but the latest Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey showed a genuine increase in people with mental illness symptoms. The proof is also in the bleakest stats surrounding mental health among students, which show that the suicide rate of students is higher than non-students of the same age. There were 95 reported suicides of university students in England and Wales in between July 2016 and July 2017 — higher than in most of the earlier years studied.

Helping to explain why bad mental health is so prevalent among students today, Richard Colwill, a spokesman for the mental health charity SANE says, “Increased academic pressure and the ubiquity of social media are two frequently cited reasons for the sharp increase in the numbers of students with mental illness. But it is highly likely that there are other factors at play, such as increasing concerns about finances, debt and future job prospects, which can all undermine mental health.”

Choosing housemates and paying a deposit for a second-year house so soon came as a shock

Feeling lonely and isolated at university is another common factor, which is why graduate Roshan, 22, relates to a recent study that found adults aged 16 to 24 report feeling lonely more than people in older age groups. Roshan attended counselling sessions towards the end of first year because there were things she wasn’t prepared for, like dealing with feeling excluded from her housemates’ clique.

“It just didn’t make sense to me, because I’m usually so good at making friends and I’d say I’m pretty independent,” she says. “I regularly went back home to find the comfort of my friends and family and ended up missing uni for days at a time. When I was back in halls, I’d just stay in my room with my boyfriend, which wasn’t healthy for either of us. I knew something was seriously wrong when I just burst into tears on the way to the bus stop.”

It also didn’t help that the pressure of paying for second year accommodation started looming just half way through the academic year, adding financial worries to the mix. “I felt overwhelmed, everyone had already chosen people to live with. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that I’d have to put down a deposit so early in the year. It also seemed like everyone had a bank of mum and dad to go to, whereas I relied on my loan and two part time jobs.”  

With the average UK graduate now leaving university with a debt of £50,800 after fees skyrocketed due to the 2012 reforms, the very thought of that figure alone is enough to cause anxiety.

I want to return and finish my degree, but the pressure is too much right now

Roshan managed to do well at university in the end, but what if taking some time away isn’t enough? Nikki, 22, is waiting to return and complete her studies after taking two years off following a diagnosis of recurring depressive disorder and emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD). She’d chosen to study mental health nursing to help others in similar situations, as it is something she’s had problems with for most her life. But despite having fun and enjoying the nightlife at the start of first year, the pressure of the course soon started to trigger her mental illness.

“I had to complete placements with patients and nurses, so it’s only human sometimes to carry the distress of the people you work with back home with you,” she explains. “At the same time, I had exams and essays to write, books to read and portfolios to sign, and it got too much for me.” Nikki says she feels lucky because her tutors have given her a lot of support, but properly communicating with the university about a mental health condition is a lot easier said than done for many.

“Every university asks new students if they have a mental health problem before they start so that they can put support, services, networks and resources in place. The issue is that many students don’t declare it because they want a fresh start,” Dr Dominique Thompson, a member of the Student Minds’ Clinical Advisory, explains. “It’s totally understandable that students might want to reinvent themselves but, realistically, that doesn’t work, and down the line they have exams in a few months and it all starts to go a bit wrong. That’s why, although they don’t have to declare anything, it’s highly recommended.”

I’m trying to get more guys like me to open up about their mental health problems at uni

Student Isaac, 22, is working to create more open dialogue with male students around their mental health at his university, where there has been 10 sudden deaths among students in the past two years — a number of which were confirmed suicides. Speaking about his own mental illness, he says, “I put a lot of my self-worth into how I was doing academically. So, when I came to a Russell Group university and was just as good — if not worse — than my course mates, my mental health took a downturn. I came very close to taking my own life in the Summer, due to a combination of life situations, not really having anything to do and thinking I didn’t have any purpose.”

Isaac is now on the road to recovery but is finding it difficult to encourage other guys to open up about their experiences — despite the fact that suicide is the biggest cause of death among males aged 20 to 49 in the UK. “But this is a fight worth fighting for in my opinion,” he adds. 

Last year, universities minister Sam Gyimah sent a letter to university leaders saying there is no negotiation on prioritising mental health among students. It came after the government announced a University Mental Health Charter to raise standards in promoting student mental health. The prime minister also appointed the UK’s very first minister for suicide prevention. But, although many universities are starting to invest more in prioritising good mental health, a number of Britain’s top institutions still lack comprehensive student mental health policies.

Institutions could adopt school-wide approaches to student mental health that are informed by best practice, and which aim to improve wellbeing and resilience for all students

“Challenges faced by students with mental health issues range from limitations of our current mental health system (it can be difficult and slow to refer students onto specialist mental health services), to stigma and awareness (fear of being judged or being seen as weak, lack of confidence to ask for help), to the impact of higher education generally on wellbeing (stress, loneliness),” explains a Mental Health Foundation spokesperson.

“To tackle this issue, institutions could adopt school-wide approaches to student mental health that are informed by best practice, and which aim to improve wellbeing and resilience for all students. Higher education institutions can also focus on creating a culture that allows students to feel comfortable disclosing mental health problems early on. They should also have evidence-based and easily accessible internal support, and build links to external support services, to allow students to access effective help quickly when needed.”

University is probably the most expensive thing a person in the UK will spend money on, bar buying a house. But young people are willing to live with that debt on the promise that higher education will help them to develop and thrive. Perhaps it’s time to stop fixating on entry numbers, and start focusing on the minds they represent.


23rd January 2019