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Student Mental Health in Crisis?

​News | 30 June 2022

We don’t have to search very hard to find articles and reports telling us that mental health among university students is worsening year on year. In 2021, UCAS told us that the proportion of applicants disclosing a mental health issue had increased by 450% in just ten years. Even that figure probably only represents about half the number of students who are living with long-term mental health conditions – the rest simply don’t disclose at the point of application. At Cardiff Met, we’ve seen a 30% increase this year alone in applicants declaring a disability or mental health issue, continuing a familiar trend. As many as 70,000 students are entering UK universities every year with a diagnosed mental health issue. So why are things seemingly getting worse? And what are universities doing about it?

At least some of the increase is driven by reduced stigma around mental health, and increased early diagnosis of conditions including anxiety and depression. None of us who work in and around student mental health can be anything but pleased that young people increasingly feel able to talk about their challenges and recognise their need for support. The Covid-19 pandemic has also brought specific challenges for both current and future university students, with disrupted learning and exams provoking increased anxiety, to say nothing of the disappointment of the university experience not working out as they had anticipated, despite the best efforts of universities over two years. We might argue that every group in society faced disruption, so why should students be treated differently to the wider population?

The truth is, the relationship we have with our students is different from that of either schools with pupils or statutory services with service users. They are paying a significant fee to come and study with us, and we feel a responsibility to support them to get the most from their time with us.

And universities do have a whole range of support services, including mentoring, counselling, adjustments to study, peer support and (in Cardiff Met’s case) a whole series of ‘Wellbeing Workshops’ which include mindfulness, walking in nature, and managing anxiety. The three universities in South East Wales (us, Cardiff, and University of South Wales) have even developed a partnership with Cardiff & Vale UHB to create bespoke referral pathways into NHS mental health services, launched officially at the Senedd on 21 June. We know that students who engage with the support available find it helpful in managing their mental health and ensuring they can achieve their academic potential, and we are constantly trying new approaches.

That still leaves, though, those who don’t tell us, and don’t reach out for help. Perhaps because they’re worried they’ll be judged, perhaps because they think it might affect their marks, or perhaps because they simply can’t find the words. We have a responsibility to make it as easy as possible for all students to seek the help they need. While there are plenty of websites, TikToks, and Reddits where people give generic advice and swap tips on ‘self-care’, it’s only really university student support teams who can help a student navigate the challenges of their mental health within the context of their studies, offering reasonable adjustments and working with academic colleagues to make sure that every student can achieve their potential. At Cardiff Met we use a ‘single front door’ approach. Students don’t have to know which kind of service or support they need – they just tell us their problems and challenges and then the professionals in the team work with them to design a comprehensive package of support, which might include guided self-help, alternative assessments of work, group therapy or 1-1 counselling. Our colleagues across Wales are adopting similar approaches, and we all take the time to learn from each other and share the best practice we find.

So, yes, more students are telling us about their mental health issues, and we are doing our best to help them manage that while they study. We also hope that the support and techniques we can teach them will set them up for their future lives, enabling them to contribute to Wales and the wider world as active and engaged citizens. So, if you know someone planning to come to university this September, or thinking of going in the future, reassure them that the ‘crisis’ is not all it’s cracked up to be, and encourage them to tell their university as early as possible about their challenges, anxieties or fears. They’ll find organisations full of compassionate, professional people who are totally committed to their success.

Director of Student Services, Kirsty Palmer

This article originally appeared as a University View column in the Western Mail