A lot of people ask me why mental health services have seen such a dramatic spike in demand. They say that years ago people didn’t have such problems; they question whether labelling low mood as depression causes more problems than it solves; they blame “snowplough” parents for raising “snowflake” children; they point to a lack of resilience in modern day students. I can see why it may seem this way.
But times have changed, pressures have changed. For UK students, the expectation to perform well is far greater than it was, particularly since the introduction of tuition fees. The price of failure now has a very real cost. Not just the loss of what may have been. Importantly, successful anti-stigma campaigns have played their part in encouraging people to get help when they need it.
Undoubtedly, this is progress but it comes at the cost of increased demand.
And there’s the issue of transition. It’s widely accepted that being away from friends and family can increase stress and anxiety levels in first year students. However, young people who have experience with NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and enter University with a pre-existing condition find the transition to the adult version very difficult, a point acknowledged in the Government’s recent green paper on Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision.
There’s no arguing with the evidence. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) showed that there has been a 210% increase in the number of students leaving university due to mental health problems over the last five years. A YouGov survey showed 27% of students have mental health problems. An IPPR report showed a five-fold increase in the number of students disclosing a mental health issue from 2006-07 to 2015-16. The problems experienced are real. Increased numbers of student suicides bring into sharp relief the desperate need of some students for mental health support.
But against this gloomy backdrop, there is an acknowledgement that change needs to happen. And there are reasons to be optimistic.
More people with mental health conditions are now able to experience higher education, with the necessary support. Universities UK is also spearheading positive progress, with its step change programme pushing higher education leaders to see mental health as a ‘strategic imperative’.
We are also seeing the true potential of online counselling slowly being realised, especially as demand doesn’t always come within traditional working hours. A recent Education Policy Institute report analysed how children and young people were using online counselling; if we pull out the user data from 16-20 year olds, we can see that over 70% of log-ins were outside the hours of 9am-5pm. Such online and anonymous counselling services also helps students who are not ready to talk face to face.
Recognising that the problems experienced by students are real and that there is a serious imperative to act is where we are today. Some universities, such as the University of the West of England (UWE), have gone further. UWE has already signed up to the step change programme, and has a raft of welfare services available for students, including online counselling.
Where they are leading, I hope others will follow. The health of our students depends on it.
National Development Manager