A public health challenge?

The number of students disclosing a mental health condition to their university has risen dramatically - and universities report a significant increase in demand for counselling and disability services. So, what is happening and why?

Why has there been this reported increase?

Are today’s students facing unprecedented pressures, in an increasingly stressful and uncertain world? Has widening participation meant more students are finding the transition to university a challenge? Has safeguarding and increasing parental concern to protect their children had the unintended consequence of reducing their resilience and coping skills? Or are students interpreting negative feelings and emotions, which were once seen as a normal part of life, as symptoms of mental ill health? These are just some of the questions we’re exploring, to try to understand what seems to be a growing public health challenge.

You can see some of the issues we are considering in:

The importance of what happens BEFORE university

The largest student mental health survey ever conducted in the UK found that 81% of students reporting mental health problems first experienced symptoms while still at school i.e. BEFORE going to university. That’s why part of our research is focusing on what is happening in this potentially formative period – in particular what has changed that might explain the increase. These potential factors include:

  • Changes in the school system
  • Changes in parenting
  • The impact of social media

Changes that may be impacting on school children

Teachers and teaching unions report mental health difficulties in children of all ages and suggest this is due to:

  • Schools turning into ‘exam factories’
  • Family problems
  • Social media

However, The Children’s Society reports a significant rise in reported happiness at school between 2004 and 2016 and with schoolwork between 1995 and 2016 and observes, ‘Children can be happy or unhappy with their lives whether or not they have emotional or behavioural difficulties’.

So, are pressures at school making a difference?

That’s what Elizabeth Walters has been researching for us. She has considered evidence from teachers’ unions, changes in the education system and evidence from the Children’s Society – and concludes with four questions we need answers to if we’re to be clearer about the influence of schools on young people’s mental health. Here are her findings:

Might pressures in schools help explain mental distress at university?

Have changes in parenting had an effect?

Might well intentioned parents be increasing the risk of mental distress for their children by engaging in helicopter parenting, hovering over their children, ready to swoop in and protect them at the first sign of difficulty? Does this risk reducing their resilience and coping skills and leaving them more vulnerable to mental distress?

In his blog for Health Action Campaign Michael Baber explains what helicopter parenting is, how it might influence young people’s mental health and what can be done to reduce the possible risks.

Or is social media more of a factor?

In a blog for the Royal Society for Public Health Natasha Airey has looked in more detail at - Student mental health problems - the role of social media

She finds that teenagers themselves may sometimes have different perceptions of the influence of social media from researchers, schools and universities. She finds that some of the potential effects of social media are probably well known, from making it easier to connect with family and friends to online bullying and presenting an unrealistic picture of other’s lives.

However, other effects (such as possibly delaying adolescence and adulthood) are less well known and may mean today’s undergraduates are less independent and equipped with coping skills than their predecessors – which may leave them more vulnerable to mental distress.

Can we learn from other countries?

With levels of reported student mental distress having risen sharply in the UK are there lessons we can learn from other countries, to seek to avoid this? 

The Netherlands provides an interesting comparison, as a recent study found no evidence of an increase in student mental health problems there over the last ten years. Our research suggests there lessons we can learn from our Dutch counterparts. 

What about students on particularly pressurised courses?

Some students face additional pressures. For example, medical students have above average workloads, for at least five years (rather than the usual three). They may also encounter distressing situations while on hospital placements and may be more reluctant to seek help, for fear this will damage their career prospects.  

In her article for Health Action Campaign, Lesley Hulmes, explains some of the challenges medical students face, what initiatives have been taken to reduce mental distress - and what more is still needed.