Kate Joseph and Chris Irons discuss the difficulties of studying at university and potential impact on student mental healthWith growing numbers suffering with mental health problems, not all of today’s university students are having the time of their lives. According to a recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, 16 to 24 year-olds are more likely to experience mental health problems than previous generations . In comparison to young adults in general, students reported lower levels of wellbeing. Between 2006 and 2015 the number of first-year students who disclosed a mental health problem increased fivefold and suicides in the student population rose by 79 per cent.
There are clearly many stressors facing students. Tuition fees and the increasing cost of living in the UK place large financial burdens on many, and competition to find jobs in an uncertain economic climate mean that many students worry about paying off large debts in the future. There are also cultural factors, such as some international students feeling unwelcome in the UK after the Brexit referendum. Although there is no current data on how social media impacts on students’ wellbeing, the Office for National Statistics found a clear link between the amount of time spent online and mental health problems in children aged 10 to 15.
In addition to the multiple external pressures on students, various ‘internal’ stress triggers exist, such as self-criticism, perfectionism, and chronic worry, and these can interact with the external stressors. For example, in the increasingly competitive job market, students can become even harder on themselves in order to succeed. This pressure means that they find it hard to concentrate and to relax, leading to a vicious cycle of stress and distress.
Once students recognise that they need help, they often struggle to access psychological therapy quickly, or indeed at all. NHS waiting lists for individual therapy can be several months long, and students can wait up to four months for treatment in university counselling services. This is in line with the 94 per cent rise in demand for university counselling services between 2012 and 2017.
Self compassion and self care can play an important part in a student's mental wellbeing.
However, recent research suggests self compassion and self care can play an important part in a student’s mental wellbeing. Recent studies with students in various countries suggest that self compassion is related to both emotional wellbeing and academic progress. In a 2014 American diary study by Hope et al, self compassion was associated with life satisfaction, identity development, and reductions in negative feelings. Students with higher levels of self compassion also appeared to be less vulnerable to the emotional impact of not attaining their goals. Research with Iranian students in 2016 found correlations between self efficacy and self compassion. Increases in self compassion were associated with improvements in wellbeing. These studies suggest that addressing self compassion in the first year of university could help to prevent deteriorations in student mental health.
Editor’s note: If you’re affected by any of the conditions discussed in this article and would like help there are resources available to you, such as Mind and the NHS’s ‘Student Mental Health’ site.