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Five-fold increase in number of first-year students disclosing a mental health condition to their university

New IPPR research shows 94% of UK universities have seen an increase in demand for counselling services

Over the past 10 years the number of students disclosing a mental health condition to their institution has increased dramatically, according to a new report published today by IPPR, the progressive policy think tank.15,395 first-year students at higher education institutions in the UK disclosed a mental health condition in 2015/16 (2% of all students) – almost five times the number in 2006/07 (0.4%).

The new analysis finds a widening gap in mental health disclosures between male and female students. In 2015/16 female first-year students were significantly more likely than male first-year students to disclose a mental health condition (2.5% compared to 1.4%), whereas in 2009/10 both were equally likely to disclose a mental health condition (both 0.5%).

Around three-quarters of adults with a mental illness first experience symptoms before the age of 25. Millennials are more likely than previous generations of young adults to experience a mental health condition. 19% of young adults (aged 16-24) experience a mental health condition, up from 15% in 1993.

Rising prevalence means university services are coming under more strain. The results from a new survey of 58 UK higher education providers show 94% have experienced an increase in demand for counselling services over the past 5 years, while 61% have seen demand increase by over 25%. It also finds that, in some universities, up to 1 in 4 students are using, or waiting to use, counselling services.

The report also shows:

  • Less than half (48 per cent) of students who report experiencing a mental health condition disclose it to their university, suggesting significant levels of unmet need
  • In 2014/15, a record number of students who experienced mental health problems dropped-out of university (1,180), an increase of 210 % compared to 2009/10
  • A record number of students died by suicide in 2015. Between 2007 and 2015, the number of student suicides increased by 79% (from 75 to 134).
  • Adults aged 20–24 are less likely than any other age group to record high levels wellbeing, but students experience lower levels still. In 2017, less than 1 in 5 students reported high levels of wellbeing.

Other results from IPPR’s new survey of 58 UK higher education providers show:

  • Less than 29% have designed an explicit mental health & wellbeing strategy
  • One quarter (23%) do not work closely with NHS secondary mental health services
  • One third (29%) do not monitor the attendance of all students in order to identify those at risk of poor mental health
  • Two thirds (67%) do not provide students access to NHS mental health specialists who can deliver interventions on site
  • 'Buy-in and direction from senior leadership’ is considered by universities to be the most important factor in helping to improve student mental health and wellbeing.

IPPR Senior Research Fellow, Craig Thorley said:

“The number of students who report a mental health condition to their university is growing rapidly. And a significant proportion experience mental distress and/or low wellbeing which risks disrupting their studies.

Universities must be ready to support these students, including, where appropriate, through referral into specialist care. But the extent of support is currently too varied, and many university services are overwhelmed by the level of demand.

As a first step, the university sector should make a firm commitment to drive up quality and increase access to support services. Along with strengthened NHS provision and funding, this will help ensure that no student is held back by their mental health.”

IPPR recommends that the university sector collectively adopts student mental health and wellbeing as a priority issue, with individual institutions developing their own ‘whole-university’ approaches, which, in the vast majority of cases, will require increased funding diverted to support student mental health from within university budgets.

IPPR also recommends that government and the NHS should:

  • Introduce a new Student Health Fund into which local partnerships of education and health providers can bid to deliver innovative models of integrated care to students
  • Introduce a new Student Premium to top-up the funding of GP practices with high proportions of patients who are students (these practices currently lose out due to the way NHS funding is allocated within primary care)
  • Pilot a new digital NHS Student Health Passport to improve the continuity of healthcare and treatment among students who move between home and university