Education & Family

'Sharp rise' in student mental illness tests universities

Student leaning over laptop Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The current generation of students is under increased pressure, the report suggests

Almost five times as many students as 10 years ago have disclosed a mental health condition to their university, say researchers.

In 2015-16, more than 15,000 UK-based first-year students disclosed mental health issues, Institute of Public Policy Research analysis suggests.

The 2006 figure was about 3,000 and the rise risks overwhelming university services, the IPPR says.

Universities UK said student mental health was "a strategic priority".

UUK says a new framework, published on Monday, will boost the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff and help embed good mental health across all university activities.

The IPPR study analyses figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which show a larger rise in disclosure of mental health conditions among female students.

Until 2009-10, the rate of male and female students reporting mental health issues was about the same, at about 0.5%.

By 2015, however, it had risen to 2.5% of female students and 1.4% of male students.

"So while male students are three times more likely to disclose a mental health condition than they were 10 years ago, female students are five times more likely," says the report.

The researchers also suggest that "due to an imperfection in the way data is collected, the actual number of mental health disclosures is likely to be higher than described in this report".

The report notes that official statistics show student suicides rose sharply between 2007 and 2015 - from 75 to 134.

And separate figures show a record 1,180 students with mental health problems dropped out of university in 2015, a rise of 210% on five years earlier.

University services

"The extent of support is currently too varied, and many university services are overwhelmed by the level of demand," said IPPR senior research fellow Craig Thorley.

An IPPR survey of UK higher education providers received 58 responses:

  • 94% experienced a rise in demand for counselling services in the past five years
  • 61% reported a rise in demand of more than 25%
  • 29% had an explicit strategy on student mental health and wellbeing

At some universities one in four students is using or waiting to use counselling services, and some report dramatic increases:

  • at Leeds University, the report says, there has been a 50% increase in demand during the past five years, with an 18% rise in the past 12 months alone
  • the University of Birmingham estimated a 5-6% annual increase in demand throughout the past 10 years
  • and the University of Dundee reported an increase in demand of about 70% over eight years
Image caption Higher education leaders plan to embed good mental health across all university activities

The authors suggest the current generation of undergraduates could be under greater pressure than previous generations because of increased study costs and an increasingly competitive jobs market, with more students determined to gain top degrees.

They also suggest that with a greater proportion of 18-year-olds going to university than in the past, students more closely reflect the population of young adults as a whole in terms of mental health - and there has been a steady growth in mental illness in young adults during the past 25 years.

The report's recommendations include:

  • universities should spend more money on student mental health services
  • better national data on which interventions most improve student mental health
  • better access for students to local NHS services

Prof Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, who chairs UUK's working group on mental health in higher education, said its new framework was "a step change" in university support for students' mental wellbeing.

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