Alarm in Britain Over Student Depression

There has been a disturbing rise in mental ill-health among university students in Britain. Eighty percent of the 54 universities responding to a survey reported observing a “noticeable increase in complex mental health crises” among their student populations in 2015 compared to 2014.

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In the survey conducted by AMOSSHE, a student services organization, 90 percent of the schools reported working on critical/serious incidents with the police and/or coroner during 2015; two thirds noted that they had worked on three or more such incidents in 2015. Nearly half of the schools reported one or more student death in 2015 involving suicide or suspected suicide.

At one institution—the University of York—24 percent of students seeking support from the Open Door counseling center presented with depression. Eighteen percent of Open Door users reported having suicidal or self-harm thoughts nearly every other day. In the period from January 1 to February 8 this year, ambulances were called to respond to 12 cases of self-harm or suicide attempts involving York’s students.

In response, Vice Chancellor Koen Lamberts commissioned a task force to consider actions that the university could take to better support students with mental health problems. The task force submitted its report in March—which cites the AMOSSHE survey results—and in early May York’s University Executive Board agreed to implement its recommendations.

Read the full York report and recommendations here.

The main findings: the severity of mental ill-health among students at UK universities has been increasing and continues to rise; and there are serious gaps in mental health provision, with delayed and inappropriate support for students in need of care. In a 2013 National Union of Students survey cited in the report, nearly eight in ten respondents indicated that they had experienced mental health difficulties over the previous year.

The recommendations: take immediate steps to improve University support for student mental health; and ensure a high-level and coordinated approach to improve mental health services for students. Among the eight required actions to implement the recommendations: ensuring support for “first contact” staff providing crisis support for students; improving the capacity of academic departments to identify and support students whose health and personal circumstances give cause for concern; strengthening university governance structures for student welfare; developing and implementing a new Student Mental Health Policy.

Here’s the report’s Executive Summary:

1. The prevalence and severity of mental ill-health among students at UK universities has been increasing and continues to rise. Evidence comes from national data on students reporting a mental health condition at the time of admission, student wellbeing surveys, suicide data and sector-wide evidence from student support services.

2. The prevalence and severity of mental ill-health among students at the University of York has been increasing and continues to rise. Evidence comes from a range of sources, including Open Door, Health Centre and ambulance call-out data. We were also provided with soft information pointing to a heightened sense of pessimism in the wider student community.

3. NHS mental health services are regularly failing to meet the needs of vulnerable people including students. While the government has made improving mental health services a priority, mental health services are struggling from the combined impact of rising demand and chronic underinvestment. Evidence comes from a variety of sources, including NHS England. Within the higher education sector, evidence from the leaders of student services points to serious gaps in mental health provision, with delayed and inappropriate NHS support for students in need of care.

4. These shortfalls in NHS mental health provision are evident at the University of York. They have been exacerbated by additional pressures in York and N Yorkshire, including the sudden closure of Bootham Park hospital in autumn 2015 along with other mental health provision. While the data are incomplete, they suggest those living in York, including York students, face particular difficulties in accessing early interventions (e.g. psychological therapies), crisis intervention and both inpatient and outpatient care.

5. The higher education sector recognises that student wellbeing is the foundation of learning and future success. A university experience that is enriching and fulfilling depends on positive mental health and access to support during periods of mental ill-health. A range of frameworks, good practice guides and online resources are now available to enable universities to improve their policies and practices.

6. Our recommendations are framed by the twin pressures we have identified: increasing, and increasingly complex, mental health difficulties among students at a time of increasing gaps in NHS provision. They are framed, too, by an appreciation that the University needs to give much greater priority to the mental health and wellbeing of students.

7. We make two overarching recommendations: to (i) take immediate steps to improve University support for student mental health and (ii) ensure a high-level and coordinated approach to improve mental health services for students in York and N Yorkshire.

8. Our Action Plan is designed to deliver these objectives within the next 12 months. It includes 8 areas of internal action to improve University policies and provision and 3 areas of external action to drive forward improvements in local mental health services for students.

The York report received wide attention in the British media: BBC News, Independent, Times Higher Education, York Vision.