Mental health on campus: is university making us sick?

Sunday 14 October, 12:0013:00, Frobisher 4-6Battle for Education

In association with:

A recent report by Universities UK (UUK) claims that inadequate mental-health services risk ‘failing a generation’, as 94 per cent of universities have seen a ‘sharp rise’ in demand from students for support services. Leaving home for full-time education can often be a stressful time for young people. Yet while the cost of attending university has risen substantially, in many other respects university life has improved. So why has the issue of mental health risen to such importance in recent years?

Universities now spend millions of pounds employing armies of staff to promote and support ‘student wellbeing’. Some universities now appear to be as worried about ensuring their curriculum doesn’t put students under too much pressure as ensuring academic rigour. Many universities compete with each other to offer the most ‘compassionate campus’ in the hopes that this will attract more students.

Despite this, numbers of students seeking to access services on campus is skyrocketing. A report by IPPR in 2017 found that one in four students are using or waiting to use counselling services at some universities, and a record 1,180 students with mental-health problems dropped out of university in 2015 (a rise of 210 per cent in five years). There is also a darker side to the supposed mental-health crisis on campus. In 2016, 146 students committed suicide – up from 134 in 2015 and almost double the number for 2007. Earlier this year, in Bristol alone, three students committed suicide in just one month.

The most popular reason given for poor mental health is that students claim to have too many pressures put on them – from job and debt worries to so-called identity crises induced by social-media use. Earlier this year, Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, told The Times that the age of majority for student entry should be raised to 19. ‘We have to stop assuming that 18-year-old school leavers are capable of running their own lives’, he said.

However, others are adamant that the majority of today’s students are better off than their predecessors. And with therapy petting zoos and mindfulness classes being used to combat stress and anxiety on campus, some are arguing that this has more to do with coddled students than a genuine crisis of wellbeing.

Why are the numbers of mentally-ill students rising, despite universities offering greater support? Does a focus on mental health help students, or does it generate a sense of vulnerability? Is the suggestion that anyone could be in need of therapy divert resources away from cases of real need, such as those with clinically diagnosed depression? And, more broadly, if students are less able to cope with university life, what does this say about how we raise young people today?