The number of students seeking mental health support while studying at university has increased by more than 50% in five years, analysis suggests.
The BBC asked universities across the UK for the numbers of students seeking some form of support.
The National Union of Students said young people were under increasing pressure to perform
The Department for Education said universities needed to provide pastoral care for students.
In August, a pre-inquest into the death of a vulnerable student at Bristol University heard she did not receive well-being support. Natasha Abrahart, 20, is one of 11 students at the university to die since October 2016.
Below students share their experiences.
‘There’s a lot of shame attached’
Christian, from the University of Birmingham, said: “Universities are just accepted by students to be a hotbed for stress and anxiety. The drinking culture at university allowed me to hide away, numbing my pain and normalising being exhausted in the day and hyperactive at night.
“I’d been ill throughout the course and talked to the extenuating circumstances officer about how many lectures I’d missed but my anxiety was too high to admit that I had a problem.
“By admitting to someone at the university, I’m telling them that I feel like I’m not good enough to finish a course I signed up for. This means there’s a lot of shame attached to asking for help.”
‘He could very easily have been another’
Kayleigh, from the University of Bristol, said: “A friend of mine was suicidal at uni. We got him referred to the university counselling service but he was on a long waiting list. They suggested he talk to a tutor and maybe if he’d done that he would have got counselling sooner but he was so stressed about the course that he didn’t want to. It was really hard to get anyone to take any notice.
“One night he was threatening suicide, I took him to A&E and they sent him home. I didn’t know what to do so my mum sent the vice chancellor a very angry email, basically saying, if he dies, it’s on your hands. The next day, uni mental health services got in touch and referred him to an emergency external counselling service.
“He ended up dropping out and is much healthier and happier but the uni really should have dealt with it better. Especially since Bristol is in the news about high suicide rates – he could very easily have been another.”
‘I drank by myself a lot’
Eddie, from the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, said: “Everyone says that you are totally able to reinvent yourself at university and that you will easily make friends and you’ll have the time of your life in fresher’s week and love the next three years. It was hard when that didn’t happen so I drank by myself a lot, never left my room and became worse and worse.
“For years, I’d been looking forward to uni as the thing that would make me feel better and when it didn’t, I thought I needed to do something here or I’m just going to either jump in front of a bus or be unhappy for the rest of my life.”
‘He’s got to say these things, not you’
Becky said: “My late ex-boyfriend died at 28 – he was completely failed by every mental health service he encountered, including at university. I remember forcing him to go to a uni wellbeing appointment and lying to the member of staff who basically said: “He’s got to say these things, not you,” who totally ignored the fact that he was clearly having a crisis.
“His best friend died and he never got over that. He was totally in denial about all his problems and the drinking culture at university made it very easy for him to normalise the binges. He had struggled with drink and substance abuse for years and been allowed to just carry on as if it was fine.”
‘I felt pressured to go to university’
Amy, from the University of Leeds, said:”Perhaps I should have taken a year out, but felt very much pressured by my sixth form college to go to uni, so I went through clearing. The system where you can’t be registered at a home and university doctor made access to medications I was on very complicated in my first year. After returning from Christmas break, I had a breakdown.
“The university counsellor I saw for my depression and social anxiety was amazing and the first counsellor or therapist I’d seen who has truly positively impacted my mental health. The connection to the university gave her a better understanding of my situation, in a much less clinical environment.”
“My uni is unwilling to listen to things that could improve the mental health of minority groups, like lack of gender neutral toilets and difficult transition processes for trans and LGBT students, ultimately ending up with people struggling with mental health because of the decisions the uni has taken.
“We don’t have lectures filmed or recorded so if you can’t make it out of the house then you miss a whole lecture and seminar. For some with anxiety around travel and social situations this can be difficult – there’s absolutely no understanding towards physical limitations a mental illness can have.”
‘I struggled with post-traumatic stress’
Freya, from the University of Surrey, said: “I was a victim of and witnessed domestic abuse before I began university and whilst initially dealing with it well, a year after moving 400 miles away, I started struggling with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression and felt suicidal.
“I was so distressed I emailed my personal tutor adamant that I couldn’t cope and was leaving. She managed to talk me out of it, provided the most amazing listening ear and signposted me to the Wellbeing Centre where I was able to access counselling.”
‘I was skin and bones’
Julia, from Kingston University, said:”For unknown reasons, from being a hard working design student, I developed an eating disorder and had constant panic attacks. By the end of the second year, I was skin and bones.
“I don’t blame my tutors for not noticing, but seeing it now if only the school was trained to look out for this, something better could’ve happened. The school only took notice around the end of the first term when I failed to attend a portfolio review session and I didn’t know how to fill in the mitigating circumstances application form.”
Of 83 universities that provided five years of full data from 2012 to 2017, the number of students seeking help rose from 50,900 to 78,100. The number of students going to university dropped slightly over the same period.
At the same time, budgets towards mental health services increased by more than 40%.
Eva Crossan Jory, the NUS Vice President, said: “There is a growth in demand [for mental health services] over the last decade, in part, because the reality of studying in the UK has changed so much.
“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.”
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah said: “University is supposed to be an assault on the senses. It should be demanding and disorientating, and with that should come adequate pastoral care for students.
“This does not mean mollycoddling or cushioning students from the experiences that are part and parcel of university life, it means making sure support services are available if they need them.”
A University of Bristol spokesperson said it had adopted a university-wide approach to identify vulnerable students as early as possible and get them the right support.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can contact:
- Samaritans free on 116 123 (UK and Ireland) – 24 hours
- Papyrus free on 0800 068 41 41 or text 07786 209697 if you’re under 35
- YoungMinds Crisis Messenger text YM to 85258 – Texts are free from some service providers
- Mind information for mental health telephone support
More about this story
The Shared Data Unit makes data journalism available to news organisations across the media industry, as part of a partnership between the BBC and the News Media Association.
Data chart by Daniel Dunford – BBC Data Journalism
Some names have been changed and stories have been edited for readability and to preserve anonymity.