Universities are unable to cope with rising demand for mental health services for students despite an increasing suicide rate among undergraduates, a new Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) report has warned.
The number of students seeking counselling at university has rocketed by 50% in the last five years, according to recent figures whilst the report says that 1 in 10 students has a “diagnosable mental illness” as the issue of mental health becomes less taboo then it was in the past.
In HEPI’s report, entitled “The invisible problem? Improving students’ mental health,” it was also noted that research by other organisations has repeatedly shown that students are less happy and more anxious than non-students on average contrary to popular belief that those in higher education have better mental health than the population at large.
It explained that the general stress of going to university can affect a young person’s well-being, as taking on tens of thousands of pounds in debt and the competitive job market can leave students feeling under pressure to gain a high-class degree.
Additionally students often become vulnerable because they are living away from home for the first time, and have lost direct access to support networks including their family and their GP.
The increasing number of international students is also a factor, with many under even greater pressure to succeed, coming from families who may have saved up for years to send one of their children to a UK university as well as having to face cultural clashes and difficulty to integrate.
Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says despite all this some universities spend more on employing one academic then they do on their entire counselling service.
Therefore the report has called on universities to triple their spending on mental health services in order to adequately meet the increasing demand as evidence shows that counselling services are highly effective, but student-to-counsellor ratios can be three to four times lower than the required number.
Ruth Caleb, of the higher education working group on mental health, said counselling could help students before a “concern becomes a crisis”.
Poppy Brown, who is the author of the report and is herself a student at Oxford University, conducting research on anxiety disorders.
“The scale of the problem is bigger than ever before,” she said.
“Yet support is hard to access, universities often underfund their counselling services, and the NHS does not recognise how vulnerable students are.”
“In particular, there is often no consistent care between term-time and holidays. We need to tackle these problems,” she said.
At the moment only 13% of the NHS budget is currently committed to mental health services, despite the fact that mental illness accounts for 28% of all issues brought to them.
There has previously been a series of warnings and the report highlights a recent Unite survey which suggests 32% of students had
always or often felt depressed in the previous four weeks, while 30% always or often felt isolated or lonely.
Some universities have began prioritising mental healthcare. The University of York announced on Thursday it was investing £500,000 in mental healthcare provision across its campus after a six-month review, prompted by an increasing demand for services from students and disruptions to mental health provision in the city. The university is planning to expand its in-house counselling service and employing two new members of staff to ensure those who need urgent appointments can be seen quickly.
However this is a single example and in general, the report calls for more support for students who have problems such as depression, anxiety and loneliness.
It additionally calls for more continuity of care, such as allowing students to be simultaneously registered with a GP both at their parental home and at university and believes affected young people should be offered flexible appointment times so they don’t clash with exams or study leave. Universities should adopt also mental health action plans to improve their service and all staff who have regular contact with students should be given mental health training, according to the report.
The group has also asked the government to ensure that mental health research receives the funding it needs to ensure that the new Office for Students (OfS) and other relevant bodies have robust data on the prevalence of mental health problems among higher education students.
Universities are being urged to carry out a review of their current services and find what can be improved.
Universities UK says a strategy for student wellbeing is currently being devised by a group chaired by Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England which will set guidelines for counselling and mental health services that should be available from universities and the NHS.
Universities UK’s Chief Executive, Nicola Dandridge, said: “It must be a core part of the offer to students, parents and staff as well as to local and national stakeholders.
“Student wellbeing must be at the heart of the university.”