The rise in student mental health problems – ‘I thought my tutor would say: deal with it’

Students starting university face different pressures from earlier generations.
What are the potential troubles and how can young people be prepared?

It was at 3am that film student Nicola Gee finally managed to confess, in an anonymous text to Samaritans, how depressed she had become at university. “By then, I felt isolated and shut off from my friends. I had put myself under a lot of pressure to achieve, and then would get annoyed with myself for feeling low and stressed. I had this constant feeling of being a failure, like nothing I did was ever good enough.”

She started closing herself away in her room for hours to study, and stopped eating regular meals. Her sleeping pattern became disrupted and she struggled to get up in the mornings. Then she’d tell herself it was her fault she wasn’t coping: “Everyone else seemed to be managing, and meeting their deadlines.” That belief put her off from seeking help. “I thought if I went to the doctors and said I was stressed, they’d laugh at me. And if I asked my personal tutor for help, I’d be told: just deal with it, like everyone else.”

Her mother and sisters were going through a difficult time following the breakup of her parents’ marriage, and she felt guilty she wasn’t there. “Getting a first was the only way I could validate my decision to live so far away.”

Gee, who was studying at Leicester University, eventually sought help. “I was lying awake, feeling depressed and alone. I remembered hearing that Samaritans have a 24-hour number you can text.”

Writing her feelings down in a text message proved a relief and within five minutes she had a helpful reply.

Thanks to regular support from Samaritans, she worked up the courage to talk to her tutors and got extensions on her deadlines, and then began running regularly to help release stress.

“I used that time to wind down and have a break from thinking about my degree and my family. I’d come back from a run relaxed and able to sleep.” She graduated with a first and, over the past 18 months, has run 24 races to raise money for Samaritans.

Sadly, many university students like Gee will fail to get the help they need. The Higher Education Statistics Agency recently revealed the number of students who drop out of university with mental health problems has more than trebled since 2009-10, with a record 1,180 university students with mental health problems abandoning their studies in 2014-15, the most recent year for which data was available.

How can those starting university this academic year avoid this? Do today’s students find university more of a struggle than their predecessors and, if so, why?

Dr Fredrik Johansson, a consultant psychiatrist for Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, thinks they do. Around 5% to 10% of his caseload at any one time are university students, studying at, for example, nearby UCL, LSE or the University of the Arts. Their numbers have significantly increased recently, he says.

“Those who would have suffered in silence may now be accessing help. However, I do think the students I see feel under a lot more pressure and they have more extreme reactions to stress. They are less resilient than in the past.” He fears that the students he treats represent “the tip of the iceberg”.

Helicopter parenting and over-monitoring are partly the reason some undergraduates struggle to cope, he thinks – “they haven’t experienced making mistakes by themselves” – but he also blames financial pressures. “They take university more seriously than we did. They are very aware they will owe a lot of money when they graduate and they feel they absolutely have to do well as a result.”

Dr Aleksej Heinze, senior lecturer at the University of Salford Business School, has noticed the vast majority of his students now have a part-time job. “They feel under immense financial pressure.” For some students he sees in his capacity as a personal tutor, this can create what he describes as the perfect storm: having to meet work commitments as assignment deadlines pile up.

“Sometimes these students are tempted to take shortcuts like plagiarism, even though our plagiarism detection rates are very high nowadays. Others will get into strange sleeping and eating patterns because they are working shifts and don’t know how to look after themselves.”

Studying and working has replaced studying and socialising. “As a result, it’s not as easy for students today to make close friendships, and some think their existing relationships on social media are enough for them. That tends to make them less resilient if things do go pear-shaped, because they don’t have a support network at university.” He typically refers at least one student a month for counselling.

Homesickness is another common reason freshers struggle, says Dr Hinnah Rafique, a lecturer in public policy at Oxford University and a director at Generation Medics, which helps young people from all backgrounds access medical and health careers. “Some students are still unprepared for university and, especially if they are the first in their family to do a degree, don’t know what to expect.”

The good news is that university pastoral staff are better trained nowadays, she says, and recognise how overwhelming homesickness can be. “It can rear its ugly head at any time, and it tends to be triggered by really small things that seem completely insignificant to someone from the outside looking in. Students should seek help early.”

Meanwhile, Dr Ewan Jones, director of studies in English at Downing College, Cambridge, has noticed many more freshers struggling to make the transition from school, where they are frequently measured and tested, to a different form of thinking, where they are encouraged to explore ideas and try them out.

Some obsessively compare themselves to their peers, especially on social media. “Our first year students are used to being big fish in small ponds. They can’t all be the smartest kid in the room at Cambridge. Many find that difficult.”

Freshers are routinely asked if they have previously experienced any mental health problems and, over the past 10 years, Jones has observed greater numbers reporting these problems, both before and after they arrive at Cambridge. He believes this may be partly because the support services for students have increased.

“We encourage our students to feel there’s no stigma in speaking out and deliberately give them personal tutors who do not teach the subject they are studying. That way, they don’t have to put on a brave face.”

Last year, just before exams started, the college also offered students meditation sessions and puppies to stroke. “The puppies in particular proved very popular.”