Mental Health and University: A Changing Landscape

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Only a few years ago, it was much harder to access mental health support at university. A report from 2019 found that there were many student services gaps and many questions about the effectiveness of services offered.[1]

Thankfully, the landscape has shifted in recent years. Many universities have stepped up their services (partly because of the Covid-19 pandemic) and are improving access to support to serve their students better.

The Need for Additional Support

It is not uncommon for young people to struggle with their mental health when starting university. The contrast between university and sixth form is stark and moving out for the first time is a big challenge. Young people can struggle with loneliness when moving into house shares and student halls and moving to a different part of the country can be daunting.

However, the recent pandemic has also been responsible for a significant uptick in mental health challenges. One study from the Office of National Statistics in the U.K. found that 37% of students showed signs of depression, and 39% also struggled with anxiety.[2]

It is the same story worldwide, with a study of almost 14,000 students from eight countries finding that 35% struggle with a mental health condition.[3] In the U.S., anxiety is the biggest problem plaguing students.

More Support Services Added

Universities have focused much more on their mental health support services in recent years, adding many more options for students to take advantage of. For example, Cambridge University in the U.K. was recently criticised for its approach to student mental health, which resulted in the university completely overhauling its services and delivering a new counselling model to better help students.

The charity Student Minds also launched a mental health charter in the U.K. to encourage institutions to offer greater levels of care to their students. Developed with staff and students, the University Mental Health Charter runs an accreditation scheme that helps universities identify potential areas of improvement within their mental health approach, and they receive a Charter Award if support is deemed outstanding.

More online support is also being offered to help students in the form of therapy apps and web-based counselling, as well as resources that students can turn to if they are concerned about their mental health. Along with services offered by universities themselves, websites such as Student Space provide additional support and help for young people.

As discussed in one of our recent blogs, many supportive schools provide a wealth of mental health services to their students. Globally, more and more universities are putting mental health at the forefront of their policies, helping more young adults to adapt to university and college life.

The Benefits of Additional Support

Extra support for young people heading to university is overwhelmingly positive. For young people with pre-existing mental health conditions or who have previously been in treatment, taking the next step to higher education can feel overwhelming. However, improving mental health support from universities can make this transition much easier and make university life something to look forward to.

Greater support for students also means boosted academic performance and better concentration for those who struggle to attend lectures or seminars. Improved accessibility introduced in many universities due to the recent pandemic also means that many students may be able to access lectures as recordings or attend online, so they are not missing out on their education due to mental health issues.

Encouragement and support for students can help them identify their personal goals and build a community of others in the same scenario. Group sessions are utilised in universities across the world and allow young people to meet and bond with others who can provide different perspectives on the challenges they are facing.

Barriers to Support

Although there is a lot of support for students entering university for the first time, there can be potential barriers that may stop them from reaching out for help. One study examined why young people, including students, may not seek help for their mental health and found that many are dissuaded by the stigma surrounding mental health.[4]

Other potential barriers include difficulty expressing and identifying concerns. They may feel ashamed or embarrassed about discussing their symptoms with a new counsellor or practitioner or simply struggle to define what they are feeling in the moment.

In some cases, some universities may not signpost their services as well as they could, and young people can struggle to know where to turn. This uncertainty, combined with the big step from secondary education to higher education can worry young people who want to seek help but are unsure where to go.

However, there is still hope. Universities commonly offer counselling services for free; if these are not signposted clearly, enquiring with the university can help students access them. Along with counselling, there is often student-led support in the form of societies, advice services, or groups. Although these will be more informal than counselling, they can provide a welcoming, supportive space for those who need it.

Additional Support

Support does not have to come from the university alone. Some young people may find that the services the university offers are not suitable for them, and they need more comprehensive help. Registering with a doctor in your country of study (if you have moved abroad) can help you find options for therapy and additional support that universities do not have the resources to provide.

Alternatively, it is essential to remember pre-existing support systems that are in place for young people. Some may want to move away from their family and friends to attend the university of their dreams or because they are seeking independence, but distance does not have to be a barrier – even a phone call with a loved one can help.

University can be a fantastic experience for everyone who chooses to go, even those who think their mental health might pose a challenge. The new emphasis on mental health support at universities allows anyone who might need it to find help when they need it most, especially during the challenging transition of their first year. Knowing that support is available can give young people the boost they need to jump into university life and enjoy it to the fullest.

This is the final blog in our university and mental health series. Over the last few weeks we have explored difficult transitions in university life, supportive schools, navigating the first year, and different college cultures that could pose challenges. With proper research and planning, university can be an amazing experience for all young people, and can set them on the path for an extremely bright future.

Sources:

[1] Duffy, Anne et al. “Mental Health Care For University Students: A Way Forward?”. The Lancet Psychiatry, vol 6, no. 11, 2019, pp. 885-887. Elsevier BV, https://doi.org/10.1016/s2215-0366(19)30275-5. Accessed 8 Sept 2022.

[2] “Coronavirus And First Year Higher Education Students, England – Office For National Statistics”. Ons.Gov.Uk, 2022, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandfirstyearhighereducationstudentsengland/4octoberto11october2021.

[3] Auerbach RP, Mortier P, Bruffaerts R, Alonso J, Benjet C, Cuijpers P, Demyttenaere K, Ebert DD, Green JG, Hasking P, Murray E, Nock MK, Pinder-Amaker S, Sampson NA, Stein DJ, Vilagut G, Zaslavsky AM, Kessler RC; WHO WMH-ICS Collaborators. WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project: Prevalence and distribution of mental disorders. J Abnorm Psychol. 2018 Oct;127(7):623-638. doi: 10.1037/abn0000362. Epub 2018 Sep 13. PMID: 30211576; PMCID: PMC6193834.

[4] Salaheddin, Keziban, and Barbara Mason. “Identifying Barriers To Mental Health Help-Seeking Among Young Adults In The UK: A Cross-Sectional Survey”. British Journal Of General Practice, vol 66, no. 651, 2016, pp. e686-e692. Royal College Of General Practitioners, https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp16x687313. Accessed 8 Sept 2022.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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