UK universities act to tackle student mental health crisis

Archie and Sally, two first-year students at the University of Bristol, sounded like they were describing anxious parents when they talked about the university’s efforts to check their wellbeing.

The other day a tutor left a plate of brownies in the kitchen at Sally’s dormitory, with a note asking if anyone needed to talk. Then there are the emails and the questionnaires. “They keep checking up on us — emailing us every few days, asking if we’re OK,” said Archie, 19.

Bristol is one of the UK’s top universities and also the site of a cluster of suicides. Seven students have taken their lives in an 18-month span, the most recent in January.

There has been no discernible pattern among the fatalities: some have been found at home; others on campus. They have included foreign students and domestic ones. Some had been diagnosed with depression, while others had not.

The suicides are the most visible — and tragic — element of a mental health crisis that, according to Hugh Brady, Bristol’s vice-chancellor, has become pervasive in higher education and is also reaching into secondary schools.

Hugh Brady, Bristol’s vice-chancellor: ‘[Mental health] is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges affecting the education sector’ © Jay Williams/FT

“Mental health is at the top of the agenda of vice-chancellors across the country,” said Mr Brady, a nephrologist by training. “[It] is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges affecting the education sector.”

In 2015, more than 15,000 first-year students disclosed a mental health condition — nearly five times the number in 2006, according to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank. Student suicide deaths rose by 79 per cent during the same period, to a record 134 in 2015. Drop-outs, owing to mental health problems, have also risen to record levels.

At Bristol university, spread across the vibrant port city in the west of England, one in four visits to the university’s health centre was for mental health issues a decade ago, according to officials. The ratio is now about one in two.

But the underlying causes are a matter of debate. Most agree that students are now more comfortable reporting mental health issues than in previous generations.

Less clear cut is whether they are under greater stress than their predecessors. The pressures bearing down on them include the burden of debt to pay annual tuition fees that surpass £9,000 a year; an uncertain jobs market; overbearing parents and secondary schools; and social media platforms that give the impression everyone else is excelling at all times and in all realms.

“It’s a cocktail of things,” said Prof Brady, who also believes concerns such as the threat of climate change and Brexit weigh on his students. “There was more certainty in our time whereas students are graduating into a world where change is the norm.”

Amber Probyn, 20, a budding entrepreneur at Bristol’s new Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship — where students are preparing themselves for jobs that do not yet exist — believes social media is at least partly to blame.

“The reality is, with the instant gratification of Instagram, everybody’s got a face on — nobody knows what’s really going on,” she said.

Students face a number of pressures that previous generations did not, such as the burden of debt to pay annual tuition fees that surpass £9,000 a year © Alamy

Her friend, Talhah Nasar, 20, thought his fellow students would benefit from “putting your phones away, talking, like the way they used to do it in the old days”.

The Innovation Centre, which Bristol opened two years ago, is itself an example of the possibility and uncertainty confronting today’s top students. The centre supports students to develop start-up businesses and allows them to work in teams on non-traditional problem solving. Heavily influenced by Silicon Valley start-up culture, it also encourages them to change the world, be nimble, agile, adaptable and disruptive all at once.

“One honours degree is no longer enough,” said Kirsten Cater, its director. “The world is changing very fast.”

At the student union, where young scholars were hunched over laptops and wearing headphones, there was shock at the suicides but disagreement on the causes, and whether Bristol itself was a factor.

One girl, who declined to give her name, suspected students who struggled with social media had underlying mental health problems. If anything, she thought she would feel more isolated without it. A more pressing worry, in her view, was the jobs market.

“You used to go to university to guarantee yourself a good job,” she said. “We pay thousands of pounds for the privilege of going to university but without any prospect of even getting a job.”

Others complained they had come from pressurised secondary schools. One girl said: “There is huge pressure on ‘unis’ to do stuff — but they can only do so much.”

The threat of climate change and Brexit weigh heavily on some students © Alamy

In the recent past, when higher education was free in Britain, universities tended to view students’ mental health (to the extent it was even discussed) as someone else’s responsibility — be it families or the National Health Service. But expectations appear to be changing with the advent of tuition fees that have made students high-paying consumers.

“The pendulum has swung massively,” said Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, who is chairing a Universities UK working group on mental health.

As a student, Prof West said, he was not even aware that his school offered mental health treatment. He has since become passionate about universities doing more as he has watched the statistics rise and met families devastated by suicide.

“Hearing the stories and listening to the parents is heartbreaking,” he said.

He talks about providing a “menu” of options to help students, from forging closer links with local charities to providing immediate access to drop-in counselling and telephone appointments. The NHS, where waiting times for standard mental health appointments can run two months or longer, is reserved for acute cases.

UWE is also training academic staff to better understand mental health so they can intervene when necessary and is looking at ways to adjust the curriculum to mitigate stress.

“It’s not about throwing more money at more counsellors,” Prof West said.

Bristol is encouraging students to declare any pre-existing mental health conditions before they arrive on campus, insisting that it will not jeopardise their admission. “Of all the things we’ve done, I think that’s the most important,” Prof Brady said.

The university, which has 13 full-time counsellors, is restructuring its pastoral care so that there are full-time staff dedicated to students living in residence halls instead of academics juggling teaching and research.

It is spending an additional £1m on a new student wellbeing service and introducing course requirements beyond traditional subjects that it hopes will improve students’ coping skills and foster a stronger sense of community.

“I think they’re trying very hard,” said Archie, adding: “It’s hard for them — they don’t understand how we think.”