The emerging picture of mental health in higher education (HE) in the UK is concerning. The numbers of students expressing mental illness, distress and low well-being are disproportionately higher than other groups of the population, reports the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). Today we will be looking at the difficulties in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders, the possible causes of the rise in mental health care issues among HE students, and we will also provide information for those seeking help.

Mental Health in Higher Education: Contextualising Mental Health 

Unlike many other areas of medicine, poor mental health detection, treatment and follow-up care remain comparatively unrefined. Additional funding and research around the globe have resulted in more evidence-based guidelines for mental health; however, according to a report by The National Center for Biotechnology Information, “the quality of care for these [mental] disorders has not increased to the same extent as that for physical conditions.” This is somewhat unsurprising; the nature of mental health makes assessment and treatment inherently problematic. It’s well documented that the brain is the most complex organ in the body (and some have argued the universe).  

Our improvements in treating the body’s various other ailments have resulted in mental health becoming the next big issue to tackle: “Mental disorders are responsible worldwide for 32% of years of disability… Despite the contribution of mental disorders to the global burden of disease, the quality of care for these disorders remains suboptimal.” 

However, there is good news. As the demand for mental health treatment grows, so will research. Increased research often filters through to the general population and leads to improved health education. What will likely follow is a rise in reported mental health care disorders (as the report from the IPPR shows). Although a rise in reported cases sounds concerning, it could likely be indicative of improved diagnosis and lessening of stigma. Furthermore, increases of those seeking medical help for such ailments will improve the data, research and eventually treatment of mental illnesses. In short, an increase of those coming forward with complaints may be indicative of a wider social issue, but in the long term, it could mean better treatment and reduced stigma.  

Mental Health in Higher Education: Why the Rise? 

There are several factors that are fostering the rise in mental health care concerns in higher education. Inflation is squeezing the money students use for living, as well as pushing up interest rates on student loans. Additionally, career prospects for graduates appear increasingly volatile. Wage stagnation and a rise in inflation are combining with the substantial £9,000-a-year tuition fees to leave undergraduates burdened with a less-than-ideal outlook. Increased competition for jobs is rising year-on-year as more students enrol in higher education courses; an anonymous student told the Financial Times: “You used to go to university to guarantee yourself a good job… We pay thousands of pounds for the privilege of going to university but without any prospect of even getting a job.”  

Adding to the troubling outlook for students is the volatile political (and by proxy economic) climate that followed the Brexit result. Young voters (18-24) were by far the strongest supporters of the UK remaining in the EU with a 71% share of votes in the European Union referendum. Those young people and students are to begin their careers in a new era of economic uncertainty defined by the UK’s departing from the EU. Stephen Buckley, from mental health charity Mind, told the Guardian: 

“Today’s students face an unprecedented financial burden with student loan and tuition fee debt higher than ever before… On the other side of this is the financial stress and uncertainty around employment on graduation… Both of these are major contributors to mental health problems like anxiety and depression.” 

According to the IPPR’s report, alongside financial pressures, many students suffer stress because of the increased academic demands of studying at an HE level; this combines with a perceived need for students to gain a first-class degree to differentiate themselves from other graduates in preparation for their careers. Social pressures from exposure to new situations either via new living arrangements or meeting new people (or a combination of both) also conflate to add further fuel to the fire of this stressful period.  

When to Seek Help 

Understanding the cause of mental health concerns can help us take important steps towards prevention (by finding financial stability, for example), but what if we find ourselves confronted with a particularly challenging period? Is it right to seek medical help immediately? There’s no harm in asking for help if you start to feel symptoms of anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. If you’re a student and you begin to see your daily life is being affected by mental health concerns, then it’s time to take direct action. There are various options open to students regarding mental health: 

UKCBC Student Advisors (for UKCBC Students) 

Our safeguarding policy has been implemented to create a framework of support and protect any student who feels, or is, overwhelmed by the pressures of HE study. We have a moral duty to promote and safeguard the welfare of our students. If you have any mental or physical healthcare concerns, you can ask to speak to a senior officer (SO). The SO will then provide you with support and guide you towards an appropriate course of action. Details for contacting the SO can be found below.   

Online Resources 

Students Against Depression is an online resource that is full of useful information on understanding depression and taking steps to combat the illness. It’s also a useful place for those concerned about others; if you have a friend or family member who you think may be suffering from mental health issues, the site can help provide guidance on how to provide appropriate support. 

NHS Moodzone is also a valuable online resource for those looking to take active steps to feel mentally and emotionally healthier. There are case studies where you can see how others fought off stress, anxiety and conditions like agoraphobia as well as tips for boosting mental health.   

Immediate Help  

Local GPs often have dedicated weekly drop-in sessions where you can turn up without an appointment. From here, you may be referred directly to an NHS counsellor or psychologist. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans anytime at 116 123 (UK) to speak to a trained volunteer who will listen and try to understand how you are feeling. 

As a higher education provider, we’re dedicated to providing a supportive environment, and we have a team of advisers on hand to aid students in the completion of their studies. If you have any mental health care concerns, get in touch with our student support advisor today.

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