At Alterline we pride ourselves on knowing what students are thinking and experiencing; what they love about student life and what’s going wrong. Over the last few years there’s one theme that has grown impossible to ignore and we’re passionate about helping to address – student mental health. In this article, we take a look at the current research on the issue and at ‘Being well, doing well’, a collaborative Union Futures project with 14 students’ unions currently underway that we believe can make a significant contribution to finding meaningful solutions to the challenges students face.
The issue of mental health is consistently raised by the students we talk to – in a recent project, over a third of students said mental health (37%) and feelings of loneliness or isolation (38%) are a worry or concern. Other studies have found the prevalence of mental health issues in student populations to be as high as 78% (National Union of Students, 2015).
Whilst measures of prevalence vary from study to study, it is clear that this is a growing and serious issue; the number of students who took their own lives in England and Wales increased by 73% from 2007 to 2014 (Office for National Statistics, 2016).
Students have always had obstacles to overcome: academic pressures, balancing responsibilities, moving away from home, leaving behind their support networks (Williams et al., 2015; YouGov, 2016). However to understand more about the recent rise to prominence of this issue we need to know more.
The changing social and economic landscape means current and future students face an unprecedented set of challenges. Suggested explanations for the rise in mental health problems include a range of factors from the financial pressures exacerbated by the increases in fees and less support being available on and off campus, through to an increase in students coming to university from widening participation backgrounds (Macaskill, 2012).
“I would like there to be more support for individuals with mental health problems, especially during examination and assessment time. I struggled in my second year which caused depression and anxiety. I did not reach out for support from the university; I didn’t know it was available. This meant that I had to take time off and change my course.”
(Female undergraduate; UK university, 2017)
Identifying those most at risk is complex too. Women, LGBT students and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have been found to report more mental health problems (Ibrahim, Kelly, & Glazebrook, 2013; YouGov, 2016). However, it’s important to also be aware of those who are suffering silently. For example, international students and first and second years are less likely to seek help, often because they’re afraid, or unaware of what help they can access (Lloyd, Mcguire, & Abdulrahman, 2011; Nightline, 2013).
University counselling services are seeing large increases in demand, which some are struggling to cope with, given their resources (Williams et al., 2015). Despite this, a third of students are still unaware of where to access support at their university and more than half of students who report having a mental health problem haven’t accessed any support at all (National Union of Students, 2015).
In our recent Union Futures project, NSS Q26, one in four of over 17,000 students surveyed rated mental health support as one of the top three areas that they thought students’ unions should be campaigning on. As the voice of students on campus, students’ unions have a key role to play in developing strategies and practical solutions to offer support and address the causes of mental health problems.
To help advance this work, we have brought together 14 students’ unions to take part in ‘Being well, doing well’, part of our series of Union Futures collaborative research projects, which has the potential to be the largest-ever study of student mental health.
“Having worked with Alterline before, we have seen the value that high-quality research can bring. Supporting our students is one of our main priorities and mental health is an important part of that support.”
Samantha Budd, CEO at Bristol Students’ Union
The project, which is supported by the National Union of Students (NUS), was launched in September and will involve a large-scale, quantitative survey followed by in-depth qualitative work, including interviews, focus groups and online diaries.
Participating students’ unions:
If you would like to know more, please contact Ben Hickman, Research Director.