New students urged to take care of mental health after record number of university suicides

Many students can find the university experience challenging

As freshers’ week approaches, new students are being urged not to ignore the mental health issues increasingly being reported at universities. Chris Burn reports.

According to the old cliché, they are supposed to be the best days of your life; a three-year journey into adulthood with new friends, new experiences and the occasional bit of studying.

But with eye-watering student loan and tuition fee debts, academic pressure, learning to be self-sufficient and having to build a new social network from scratch, there is a growing recognition that university life is far from plain sailing for many young people.

More than half a million young people will soon be starting university and those heading for halls for the first time in the next few weeks are being urged not to neglect their mental health, while remembering help is available.

A new Institute for Public Policy Research report has found almost 16,000 first-year students reported a mental health condition in 2015/16, with a record 134 students dying by suicide in 2015 – 79 per cent up on 2007. A record 1,180 students with mental health problems quit university in 2015.

Just last month, almost half of students studying at different institutions in York said they were suffering from mental health problems – with concerns over workload, exams, money and career prospects among the issues weighing heavily on them.

The report was ordered by councillors to examine student health in the city amid a focus on mental wellbeing in the wake of a number of suicides.

Last year, The Guardian reported there had been a 57 per cent increase in students at the University of Leeds accessing counselling services over a three-year period – with similar rises also recorded at other institutions such as Oxford, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, group associate medical director at Priory Healthcare, says it is not surprising many students struggle.
“Mental health difficulties can beset anyone at any time, but there is a big transition stage when young adults leave home and start university, when life can be particularly challenging,” she says.

“A stereotype exists of students drinking coffee all day and partying at night, but the truth is that many students start university life knowing that their debt levels are rising by the day, and they take on extra jobs to deal with this, and combine these jobs with their studies. We know that increasing numbers are accessing mental health services.”

She says there are simple and practical steps available to people struggling with issues like stress or loneliness. This can include joining clubs or societies, eating healthily and calling home to share your feelings with loved ones.

Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind, agrees that university life poses “unique challenges”, with young people expected to take on the role and responsibilities of adulthood without the social structures they previously relied on being available.

“Seeking help is one of the most important things to do if you feel like you’re experiencing a mental health problem. If you’re not feeling your normal self to the point where it is impacting your life – preventing you attending lectures, socialising, or even leaving the house – that’s when it’s time to reach out for support.”

Universities increasingly offer free and confidential counselling services. The University of Leeds has a dedicated mental health team, while the University of Sheffield’s counselling service has been honoured through the Accreditation Programme for Psychological Therapy Services.

Katherine, one student who has used the Sheffield service, says: “Things really went from feeling completely overwhelming for various reasons to being much, much more manageable.”

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