Student depression: overcoming mental health stigma at universities

Joanna Thom
26 Aug 2014

Starting university, and moving away from home, can be stressful – plus new social pressures, new responsibilities, new expectations…

Recent reports suggest it is particularly crucial that students learn how to support their mental health at this critical stage of their lives.

Professionals are now aware that half of all lifetime mental illnesses start by the mid-teens, with three-quarters developing by the mid-20s. In these early onset years, the intervention of specialised treatment can make a huge difference.

With widespread stigma remaining in the academic environment, and persistent cuts to student support services, there is a need for change if mental health issues are to be sufficiently reported and addressed.

Mental health issues amongst students often go unreported

A 2012 report released by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) found that just 0.7%, or 1 in 150 students, had disclosed mental illnesses to their higher education institutions in 2010-11.

Given that 1 in 6 Britons are suffering from some form of depression or anxiety at any one time (according to figures from the Department of Health), this disclosure rate clearly represents a case of under-reporting.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, attributed the surprisingly low figures to the continuing stigma around mental health issues:

“I suspect individuals do not want to show weakness or vulnerability. There are very few occupations where people feel safe enough to report something, because there is a stigma attached with mental health – it is clearly something we have not overcome in academia.”

Increase in student suicides

The number of students who took their own lives in England and Wales rose by 50% between 2007 and 2011, from 75 to 112, despite the number of students as a whole rising by only 14%.

That these figures have emerged at a time when student fees are rising sharply may suggest that there is insufficient support for students facing financial pressures.

In July 2011 23-year-old student Toby Thorn tragically took his own life, his final words written on the back of a bank statement. When he died, he was £3000 overdrawn, and still had a £5000 student loan to pay off.

Of course, it is crucial to practice caution when making links between student suicide and debt.

Stephen Platt, professor of health policy research at the University of Edinburgh, reminds us that "there are many risk factors for suicidal behaviour: 90% of the people who commit suicide will have a psychiatric illness at the time of their death, and there are many other cultural and social factors.”

Nevertheless, financial pressures can certainly worsen pre-existing mental health conditions: “Studies show that a greater proportion of people in debt will report mental health problems… And we know that mental health problems increase the risk of suicide."

Changing attitudes

The results of a 2013 Freedom of Information (FOI) request suggest that attitudes towards mental health may have already undergone significant positive change.

The results, released in Huffington Post UK, revealed that the number of students seeking help for depression has more than doubled at the some of the country’s top institutions.

At Sheffield University for example, there has been an increase of 476 students seeking help in the last 5 years.

On the one hand, these results are deeply concerning, but Denise Meyer, counselling psychologist and project manager for Students Against Depression, advised that it is “difficult to draw straight conclusions” from the figures.

“The increase in those seeking counselling more recently might in part be a sign that mental health is steadily becoming less of a taboo subject, and more people are aware of counselling and how it might help.”

‘Strained resources’ available to university counselling staff

At the same time as student demand for counselling is increasing, the 2013 FOI request also reveals dramatic cuts in funding to university support services.

In 2011/12, the number of students treated at King’s College London was 1,927 – over double the figure for 2006/7. Even so, the university spent nearly £87,000 less on counselling services than it had done in the 5 years previously.

Mental health campaigner Ed Pinkney, the founder of Mental Wealth UK, has raised concerns over the "strained resources" available to university counselling staff – concerned that students may be discouraged from seeking help if they are aware that waiting lists are long, with the prospect of help seeming too distant.

Rapid change is necessary

Pinkney advocates a change in attitudes towards mental illness from inside university walls: "to see support and teaching as completely separate issues, is to completely overlook the extent to which mental health issues […]  stress are being affected by teaching matters”, he advises.

University Unions and welfare staff must make it a priority, from Fresher’s Week onwards, to clarify the various systems of pastoral care available – whether provided through nurses, university counsellors or local GPs.

Academic staff should be prepared to offer flexibility around absences and deadlines, if requested by a student experiencing mental health issues.

And above all, cuts of university welfare services must be stopped. As Pinkney states:

"It is difficult to see the rise in student suicides reversing if […] support services continue to have their budgets threatened with cuts.

"This isn't just about the personal issues facing a minority of students. It's an academic issue, too. Just as buildings require strong foundations, students cannot be expected to thrive if they lack adequate support."

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  • John Slowley
    over 2 years ago

    I take issue with Stephen Platts statement about Student suicides. I have found in 30 years experience of mental health work that debt is very often the only factor in suicidal feelings/ actions; more recently the suicides amongst those affected by the bedroom tax and other financial difficulties attests to this. Medics have always referred to "pre-existing" pathologies, yet research has consistently shown that helping with single issues, whether it be debt, trauma, bereavement or others , through counselling, alieviates the suicidal intentions. To talk about "pre-existing" pathologies just increases stigma and is not helpful when seeking help.

  • Jenny Pearson
    over 2 years ago

    I have struggled with depression throughout university and none of it is due to money problems. As a student, you have a lot of free time which you usually spend doing nothing, and if you dont have many friends you can become very isolated. My uni has a counselling service which is pretty organised and seems to genuinely care, however I did feel that my counsellor got fed up with me and because she wasnt helping she ended the sessions, probably because of the huge demand for the service.

  • Anonymous commenter
    over 2 years ago

    Interesting report and an important issue to highlight at this time of year. Where can students go to seek help, both inside or out of university if they need support with mental health issues?

  • Carolyn Burke
    over 2 years ago

    My daughter has struggled with depression and is currently attending the City of Birmingham University. I found the staff there excellent and very swift with correspondence. She had to drop out after her first term but has successfully returned. Going into her second year now we have made it a priority to contact the wellbeing team and find out what is available. I applaud them for their attitude to Mental health.

  • Dan
    over 2 years ago

    A friend of mine was having regular panic attacks at his university, which he started this year. People don't realise how serious these kind of things are and how to help, rather than stigmatise and say 'oh you'll be fine'. I read here:, that 1 in 4 people suffer from mental health issues every year. Universities are a scary place to go, so students need as much help as they can get! Great article!

  • Anonymous commenter
    about 2 years ago

    I work as a university based counsellor. The service always has a waiting list but generally manages a much shorter lead time than in the NHS. The majority of counsellors are volunteers as there simply is not enough funding. However there is also more work needed in encouraging young men to access services. Nearly all our clients are female which does not reflect our student base. Also male students also tend to seek help in a more acute state than female students.

  • Anonymous commenter
    about 2 years ago

    Have there been effort to hold seminars on coping with depression for staff and students? This may help in reducing the costs of student depression on the campuses in the uk.

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