Mental health at university

Cardiff University Student Support Centre sits at 50 Park Place Photo credit: Cardiff University

“Student mental health is a priority- not only because we want to help students to thrive and realise their potential both academically and personally, but also because of our responsibilities to our university community. We should support students in the same way that we would also seek to support staff experiencing mental health problems” Professor Sir David Eastwood, University of Birmingham

A Case Study:

Jake was in his first year at Cardiff University. He had failed to complete first year and then taken a year out to decide what to do next, and had just started a different degree, moving into halls. Without his friends realising, he was desperately suffering with his mental health. Towards the end of Freshers’, he took his own life. His girlfriend at the time sought help, feeling somehow to blame after an argument with her boyfriend the night of the event. She took an overdose and was admitted to hospital, thankfully making a full recovery and returning to university the year afterwards.

As I sat talking with his friends about what had happened, I couldn’t help but realise how raw the pain still was. They seemed to regret not doing anything sooner, and were frustrated at the support services. The details have been changed for the sake of anonymity, but this story continues to be told, in Cardiff and across the country.

Student suicide:

Cases like this are sadly becoming far too common on university campuses across the country. Suicide amongst the student population is a key indicator of the wider impact of a mental health crisis.

The number of students taking their own lives is now at record levels, according to think-tank IPRR. 134 took their own lives in 2015, a rise of 4 on the previous year. The breakdown of this for male students is particularly worrying, as around a 100 of the 2014 statistic were men. What this reflects is both a lack of conversation amongst men about mental health, and also a convention of living up to idealised archetypes of ‘manliness’ that are simply not true in modern society.

More worrying for support services, is that of the students who took their own life, only 28% had been in contact with support services in the year before their death, with only 12% reported to be seeing counselling services. It is clear that many who are at risk do not seek help themselves, which is symptomatic of a wider deficiency in mental health provision for students, it would seem.

Why has there been such a rise?:

What has caused the prevalence of students suffering is difficult to pin down to a single set of reasons. It is important to consider the national climate, with the Royal Family being the latest celebrities to be particularly honest about their mental health issues surrounding the death of Princess Diana, but there is more to consider from a student perspective, from exam pressures, rising grade demands for securing future careers, or even the rising costs of housing.

One reason stands out in particular. Campaigners have argued for a number of years that tuition fee rises have played a part. Mind (the mental health charity) noted that the rise in students seeking counselling coincided conveniently with the trebling of tuition fees to £9000, despite this being easily deniable by the government. Shelley Asquith, the former NUS vice-president for welfare, said:

“The evidence is clear. The marketisation of education is having a huge impact on students’ mental health. The value of education has moved away from societal value to ‘value for money’, and the emphasis on students competing against each other is causing isolation, stress and anxiety.

However, clinical psychologist Dr Thomas Richardson, who has studied the link between mental health and tuition fees, noting that “financial difficulties…has an impact on mental health in students”, but pleaded caution in correlating a direct link, as this could be symptomatic of wider issues of students and finances.


Bristol University is an interesting case study, in that they responded to criticism, and took immediate action. It was reported in September that the institution had invested £1 million in ‘well-being advisers’, amongst other measures, to combat recent demand, and also, it may be argued, to save face after a difficult previous academic year.

In the year 2016-17, the university dealt with five suspected suicides by students, which was widely reported across the local and national press. The University of the West of England (UWE), also saw one suicide. Their response has been to hire a team of 28 full-time mental health advisers and managers set to be embedded within academic departments, so that students can access support easier. Amongst other measures, they are increasing the capacity of university GPs so that mental health-related appointments can take place on the same day.

Mark Ames, the Director of Student Services there, said that the review had been conducted in light of the increasing numbers of students battling conditions such as anxiety and depression. He noted that lecturers and academic staff felt much of their time was being taken up with the emotional difficulties of students, and they worried about not feeling capable enough to adequately handle them:

“A lot of the academic staff felt they were ill-equipped to deal with these issues”, he said, keen to help instead “equip students with the ability to manage their own well-being.”

Another key feature of his comments were the attitudes of parents. After such publicity from outlets like the Daily Mail with headlines such as ‘Law student who has been found dead is believed to be SIXTH suspected 2017 suicide at universities in Bristol’, parents would surely be wary of allowing their children to study at and institution with a poor reputation. It is undeniable, however, that the response by the university has been both swift and extremely positive, with the true impacts of the changes unlikely to be truly recognised for a year or two.

The case for university mental health:

The need for adequate support speaks for itself. Roughly 1 in 4 people will suffer with a mental heath problem in any year, which is very much a mainstream figure in mental health campaigning. According to Universities UK (UUK), this could equate to 500,000 students each year, or around 8000 students at Cardiff University. 50% of adult mental health conditions have manifested themselves by the age of 18, whilst 75% are seen before the age of 24. With over 21,000 students at Cardiff studying at undergraduate level, with the vast majority being made up of non-mature students, the prevalence of mental health conditions statistically coincides with the ages of academic study.

“Universities have a duty of care to their population,” UUK acknowledged in their recent analysis of mental health at university. Adequate care is also necessary for the potential legal implications, the report said. The Equality Act 2010 covers the issue of student mental health, requiring universities to protect students with disabilities from ‘harassment, victimisation and discrimination’, which includes discrimination arising ‘from disability and a failure to comply with the duty to make reasonable adjustments’. Also, institutions are bound to safeguard (promote the welfare of anyone at risk), and protect the consumer rights (to provide accurate information about mental health support) of their students.

The number of students dropping out due to mental health problems has peaked, whilst the number of students seeking counselling at Russell Group institutions in the academic year 2014-15 topped 43,000 students, up 9000 on three years previously, which would suggest that, quite simply, universities are not meeting demand well enough.

In a national context a standard level of concern is seemingly being neglected. A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) suggested that some universities need to ‘triple’ their mental health funding for students to simply be able to meet demand. The report, entitled ‘The Invisible Problem? Improving Students’ Mental Health’, suggested that whilst the evidence shows counselling services are very effective in their treatment, student-to-counsellor ratios can be 3/4 times lower than is necessary. It is worth mentioning that some universities do better than others in their provisions. Sussex, for example, spent £456,000 on counselling services in 2015-16.

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said: “Mental disorders are most common in young adults, just at the age when many people become students. Going to university can be stressful (…). Typically, you lose your established support networks, move to a new part of the country and take on large debts. Occasionally, it even ends in tragedy.” He recognised the absolute necessity then for universities to do enough for mental health provision: “It is vital that people entering university for the first time know that support is available, that any problems can be shared, and that asking for help is normal.”

Hepi also noted the disparity between certain areas of university spending, and that counselling spending can often be as little as the cost of a salary of an academic or Vice-Chancellor. In 2016, Cardiff University had 128 members of staff on salaries of between £100,000 to £199,999, with the Vice-Chancellor earning £244,000, with a bonus of £8000, pension of £41,000 and benefits in kind at £1000. Whilst counselling spending levels are unclear for the university, it is unlikely to be beyond £500,000 per year, or the equivalent of a tiny percentage of the overall salary bill for the university, even for these higher-paid members of staff. It is worth recalling that the three years leading up to 2014-15 saw a 72% rise in counselling, and a number of highly-publicised student suicides (rises also seen across the country).

The data presented paints an uncomfortable story for UK universities to confront, but this is an international problem too. Many higher education facilities across America, for example, are seeing similar rises. It is very much a global concern, with 300 million people across the world suffering from depression alone (WHO). The challenge for those able to make a change, then, is to recognise the prevalence of struggling students and to ensure that every person studying is able to reach out and receive a basic standard of care if they need it. Cases such as Jake’s are more often than not very much preventable, and every example of a student dropping out, or a tragedy on campus is simply indicative of a wider failure nationally, both in the education sector and beyond.

Where can you get help at Cardiff University?:

Nightline: An independent, student-led charity, they offer a vital listening service for anyone who needs a chat from 8pm-8am every night of term. They are non-advisory, but have a very good reputation amongst students for offering a friendly ear.

Student Minds: Having a growing presence on campus, they run an eating disorder peer-support group every Thursday from 6:15-7:15 on the fourth floor of the Students’ Union.

Student Support: Situated at 50 Park Place, they offer a huge range of student support facilities, ranging from the Disability and Dyslexia service to appointments with the Counselling and Wellbeing team. Signing up to the counselling waiting list is easy, with all the information available on the intranet.

Also, they offer wellbeing drop-in appointments from 3-3:45 every weekday, with an extra session from 9-9:45 on a Wednesday morning, which are a 15 minute chat with one of the team. Not a substitute for counselling, they can offer advice, give resources, and refer you on for counselling. The appointments have a very positive reception from students who have used them on the whole.

In short, there are plenty of options available on campus. If you are struggling, it is also important to book an appointment with your GP, who will be able to offer guidance as to what your next step should be. You don’t need to suffer in silence. The hardest part of having a mental health problem is admitting that you need help, but it is also the most important.