Mental Health: an epidemic amongst university students

When students join university, there are a multitude of changes that take place. Be it a new country, new home, having to build new friendships and relationships and being far from one’s own family – it can and is challenging as well as overwhelming.

These changes in the environment brings along a range of mental health illnesses such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, etc., some of which students are not even aware that they are suffering from.

According to an analysis by Universities UK, approximately 1 in 4 people report a mental health problem each year, this equals to about 500,000 students per year. It also states that 50% of chronic adult mental illness starts in teenage and 75% before the age of 24 which is a clear indication of the vulnerable age that students are living in.

The BBC Shared Data Unit sent a Freedom of Information request to 163 universities of which 85 universities replied. Their study led to findings that the number of students seeking mental health support has increased by 50% between 2012 and 2017. At the same time, it should also be noted that university funding for mental has substantially increased from £25.5m in 2012-13 to £36.6m between 2016-17.

Source: FOI Requests by BBC Shared Data Unit | Credit: Alicia Phanwar

Susan Fernandes, a recent graduate from Queen Mary University speaks at length about her own experiences during her time at University. “It was initially difficult for me to adapt to the changes. I had trouble sleeping and a loss of appetite to the extent where having one meal a day alone seemed like a struggle. When you are living in student accommodation and are surrounded by new faces, you tend to keep to yourself for the first few weeks, but I only realised much later that it was not healthy for my mental well-being and that I had to get out there.

“I would suddenly experience pangs of loneliness and a dark cloud always seemed to loom over my head, yet I was not sure what could have been the reason behind it and if I am being honest, I was too afraid to find out.”

When asked if she ever felt like she had left the illness behind, she said: “I do not think you can ever leave those dark times behind. It does, in a way, shape and form the way you grow up as an adult. But I can tell you one thing that certainly helped, I was not alone. I knew a lot of university students who felt the same and I realised that my inner battle was not just mine – every student I knew felt it at some point.”

According to National Elf Service, a social care organisation, the amount of support universities provide is still insufficient for what is required. Their data indicates that only about 43% higher education universities have course content and another 67% do not have NHS practitioners on site who can help students in case of any immediate interventions that may be required.

An undergraduate student at Middlesex University, Divya, felt like universities should work more on their existing programmes and policies to reach out to students that may need help. She said: “Universities like to project the image that they are well-prepared to handle such situations but often, their approach to the subject is usually misinterpreted. Considering the stigma around mental health illnesses, there are many students, including I, who would think twice before approaching especially on university grounds. They need to introduce programmes and initiatives that involve students to reinstate the idea that ‘it is alright to feel the way you do’ and to reassure them that university is a safe space for them to grow, adapt and talk.”

She recalled how she knew someone who lived in a university hall – the halls are usually more lonely than other, say, private student accommodations. “He was reserved and would not socialise with anyone else. At one point, everyone gave up trying to include him in their circle and were not bothered to ask about his well-being. Before anyone realised what he was going through, he had dropped out from lectures and eventually left the accommodation.”

“I could not help but wonder if I or even his university could have noticed the warning signs and gave him the support he may have needed.”

It should also be noted that if the population facing such issues were divided based on gender then about 36% of females experience mental health illnesses in comparison to 19% males, recorded a poll by YouGov.


Source: YouGov | Credit: Alicia Phanwar

Additionally, the poll also states that depression and anxiety are two of the most common forms of illnesses that occur among the students with depression being recorded in 77% of students with anxiety following close behind at 74%.

When a student faces such problems, universities should promptly be alarmed when they see a drop in their academic performance or attendance and take the necessary steps required to ensure that he or she is provided a safe and secure environment to be able to progress forward in their academic career.

The government has received plenty of flak as it is well- known that the NHS is ill-equipped to handle the epidemic that mental health illness has become. However, the NHS has increased their mental health taskforce from 800 to 1500 in March 2018 as well as an increased funding of about £1.4 billion entirely for mental health care and awareness.

The well-being of a student and that they can easily access the support and care that they require is a shared responsibility between the universities and the government. Thus, mental health well – being should become a matter of utmost importance to both parties.

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