This article was published recently in the Guardian. The link to the original article is here


The number of students to drop out of university with mental health problems has more than trebled in recent years, official figures show.

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) revealed that a record 1,180 students who experienced mental health problems left university early in 2014-15, the most recent year in which data was available. It represents a 210% increase from 380 in 2009-10.

The stark figures have prompted charities, counsellors and health experts to urge higher education institutions to ensure the right support is in place.

Norman Lamb, a former health minister, said there was “a crisis on campus with respect to students’ mental health”. He added: “Counselling provision should be a priority so that all students can access effective support for problems like anxiety, but we know that these services are too often under-funded.”

Dominique Thompson, a student health GP, said she feared students could be leaving early as they struggled to cope with the gulf between school teaching and university education. She said this may be “compounding the recognised increase in mental health issues we are seeing”.

Thompson echoed Lamb’s calls for more support, saying universities could better help students by “providing increased access to relevant study skills, alongside a wide range of mental health and wellbeing options”.

Data obtained by the Guardian from universities through freedom of information requests reflected a similar trend to the Hesa figures, showing the numbers requesting counselling had risen by a third in the last three years.

Figures show that from 2015 to 2016, 87,914 asked for counselling compared with 68,614 between 2013 and 2014 – a rise of 28%. At some of the 90 UK universities that responded, demand in 2016-17 is already outstripping that of previous years, despite it being an incomplete academic year.

Heads of counselling services put the increase partly down to more students going to university with mental health problems. They added that young people are under greater pressure to succeed, with social media putting their lives under a microscope.

Catherine McAteer, the head of University College London’s student psychological services, said, “When I went to university I got a 2.1 and was perfectly happy and if I got a first I would be singing from the roof, but the pressure for them today means many think anything less than a first is a failure.”

It was also noted that the trend upward could be a sign of more awareness about services, and less taboo about discussing mental health.

Only 26 of the 90 universities were able to give the reasons students gave for requesting support. Most young people asked for help because of anxiety – the numbers doing so rose by 43% over three years. There was a 39% rise in students seeking counselling for depression over the same period.

But Guardian data shows that at a time of increased demand, some universities are cutting back on the number of counsellors they employ or failing to recruit more. The University of Stirling, for example, reduced numbers from 2.44 full-time equivalent (fte) staff four years ago to 1.4 fte this year. This comes despite a 68% increase in demand.

Jill Stevenson, head of student support services at the University of Stirling, said they did this to put in place a “flexible” approach, allowing for extra staff during peak times. She added that these numbers did not include seasonal staff.

Cardiff University, a Russell group institution, showed the biggest increase in demand for counselling services: rising by 96% from 2013 to 2016. The proportion of students asking for help went from 6.25% to 12.04%, but the university’s director of student support and well-being, Ben Lewis, said this was a reflection on their efforts to “encourage students to access” services

At some universities increased demand has also resulted in longer waiting times, the most striking being at Staffordshire University where the average wait from first assessment to counselling rose from 25 days in 2013-24 to 43 days in 2015-16. This year, so far, the university said there was a waiting time of 55 days. This was above the average of 15 days most universities reported and closer to the 84 days reported for NHS primary care.

Sue Reece, pro vice-chancellor for student experience at Staffordshire University, said they had recently restructured their counselling and wellbeing service to respond to an increased demand.

Some universities reported waits of seven days, while others said students got counselling after 20 days or more.

Dr Faraz Mughal, clinical fellow for mental health for the Royal College of GPs, said whatever the reason for more students using university services it was important they felt support. “This should be central to a university’s obligations to its students. If you fail to provide adequate support, everyone loses. Students’ futures are blighted, there is a knock-on effect to the NHS, and universities will inevitably suffer an impact to their reputation.”