A National Union of Students survey at the end of 2020 showed a decrease in student mental health since the pandemic started. Feelings of isolation in university accommodation are found to be associated with an increased risk of mental health conditions. And there were long waiting lists for students applying for mental health support even before the pandemic started. What a mess we have found ourselves in.
UCAS has found that more students declared a mental condition by the end of the 2010s compared to the start. When we say, “the kids aren’t alright”, it isn’t fearmongering anymore so much as it is an objective observation. But how did we get to this point?
Mental health issues for students
Around 2016, key organisations and figures with the Higher Education sector began to notice how there was a lack of robust data surrounding mental illness within universities. However, surveys from organisations including the National Union of Students (NUS) did do some (granted poor) research into this topic. They found that 78% of students surveyed believed that they experienced issues with their mental health in that time frame. Additionally, research done in 2008 in four higher education intuitions found that 29% of students described high levels of distress (see page 23). The same report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists also notes that many students at university span the ages of 18 to 25, which is the perfect storm for the development of mental health conditions, even removing the transition to university.
Which brings us to the next generation, and how we have set them up for a lifetime of issues. Children living in low-income backgrounds are more than twice as likely to develop mental health issues, compared to those living in the richest households. In 2017, 12.8% of 5 to 19 year olds had at least one mental condition, which spanned a variety of categories. But emotional disorders were most frequent amongst the age group.
Primary school children and mental health
Here’s one of the more shocking and heart wrenching facts: 14.4% of primary school aged children have also been identified as having a diagnosable mental health issue. There are a variety of factors in this, including the rise of tests and exams across the education system (primarily SATs and GCSEs). This leads to a toxic cycle, as 96% of students have reported that their mental health has impacted their academic results. Is it any surprise then, that 98% of teachers and school leaders in 2017 believed that pupils they encountered had some sort of mental health issue?
A personal perspective
With students having poor mental health before they even turn 18, my generation and the ones that will follow are already susceptible to mental health conditions. But facts and statistics don’t matter much unless you hear from the experiences of students, so here’s mine.
I applied for mental health support at the end of September 2021, following the start of depression due to a variety of personal issues. Two months later, with lost weight, missed seminars and many meetings with my personal tutor, I got an email saying that I could now access counselling. But I had to be referred to an external organisation for it or risk not being seen by the end of the semester. My therapist has been amazing and I’ve started 2022 in a really good place, but you know that the waiting list is long when you’ve been referred to an external organisation for it.
I’m not surprised, however, seeing as the average waiting time for students receiving such support was up to three months back in 2019. At least it’s better than the average time spent on the NHS waiting list, which can be up to eighteen weeks.
However, I don’t think we should be ranking inadequate and broken systems on a curve, as it all comes from inadequate government funding. There are some reason to be optimistic on that front, with the NHS being committed to improving waiting times on a drastic scale. But at the minute, it isn’t good enough.
But I’m not so optimistic about universities. While universities are struggling, we’re working together with external organisations to help fill in the gaps in general provision to support those with mental health conditions. I love the idea and it would be nice to see it expanded nationwide, but maybe universities should put in more effort to support their students before trying to fix wider society. Just a thought.