Pressures fuel university student mental health crisis

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Rising pressures for university students are partly fuelling a crisis over poor mental health, unions warn, while support services are struggling in the wake of Government cuts.

One in 12 students in Yorkshire sought support for their mental health last year on average, analysis reveals, with a 48 per cent rise in the number seeking help since 2012.

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Stark figures detailing the picture at universities across Yorkshire, collected by the BBC and shared with this newspaper, show attempts by institutions to tackle an emerging challenges.

But across the country, the National Union of Students has warned, rising pressures for students are adding to their struggle, while evidence suggests investment is been directed into ‘wellbeing projects’.

“Although worthwhile, these can be by no means a substitute for much-needed professional counselling services,” said Eva Crossan Jory, vice president for welfare. “On many campuses, we hear that these services are chronically over-stretched and underfunded.”

Stigma around mental health is still too great, she added, while the reality of studying in the UK over the last decade has changed dramatically.

“Students have far less money in their pockets than in previous years,” she said. “Many are balancing work, study and caring responsibilities. With fees so high, and the job market so competitive, students feel they have to continually push themselves, perhaps more so than before.

“Many are chronically sleep deprived and overworked – there is also an increase in reports of loneliness, isolation, depression and anxiety.”

In Yorkshire, data was shared by 11 universities, on rises in the number of students seeking help as well as budget changes and support. The University of Leeds, which has seen a 19 per cent increase in counselling access, also saw its budgets fall by 13 per cent in the year prior to 2017.

This was an exception, a spokesman for the university has stressed, as it reviewed its services.

“Since then we have increased investment yet again, which includes new roles and types of provision, and have received positive feedback from our students,” he added.

“We recognise that mental health and wellbeing is an incredibly important issue, which the university takes very seriously.”

At Leeds Beckett University, where one in 20 students sought support last year, budgets have risen 97 per cent for support services over the past five years.

Priscilla Preston, director of services, said the university has a sector-leading approach to mental health and wellbeing, addressing every aspect of university life for students and staff.

“We are working strategically across the whole university to address the increased demand for mental health support for those students experiencing mental ill health as well as to enhance overall mental, physical, emotional and academic wellbeing for all our students,” she said.

“Over the last four years, we have invested year-on-year in this new integrated model of service provision by enhancing resources for staffing, campaigns, counselling activity, online resources, and staff development.”

And at Sheffield Hallam, as the number of young people coming forward has more than doubled, the university said it has worked hard to raise awareness.

“Sheffield Hallam University takes the mental health of our students, and staff, very seriously,” a spokesman said. “Over the past five years the University has made it a priority to increase the visibility and accessibility of our mental health support for students, as well as increasing investment.”

Universities Minister Sam Gyimah said this was one of his top priorities.

“This isn’t about a set figure being spent on wellbeing services – universities must be responsive to the needs of every student,” he said.

“To make sure this happens, leadership from the top is vital and student mental health must be a priority – there is no negotiation on this.”

Stigma over poor mental health is diminishing, he added, meaning more people are coming forward: “Getting individuals to admit to suffering from poor mental health is, however, just one half of the battle; the other is ensuring we have the services in place to support them.”