Words by Alex Bond
Before starting university students are fed an ideal, sure that their experiences will comprise of new friends, endearing drunken mishaps and a supportive transition into independent living. Students are told time and time again that these are the ‘best years of their lives’, and the pressure to live up to this claim means that mental health becomes a shameful topic. The reality is that students are disproportionately suffering from mental health problems and the Conservative Party’s cuts to NHS mental health services are particularly damaging.
A recent YouGov poll found that over a quarter of British students suffer from mental health problems. LGBT students are even more at risk, with 45% suffering from a mental health problem compared to just 22% of heterosexual students. Additionally 34% of female students were affected, compared to just 19% of their male peers. The number of students seeking counselling is growing each year, and so are the numbers of students dropping out of their courses due to struggles with mental health – between 2009 and 2015 the rates of course drop-outs due to poor mental health increased 210%.
There are a number of factors which make students particularly at risk. The Guardian’s Annual Student Experience Survey showed that the transition from school to university, the stress of studying while maintaining a social life, loneliness and financial difficulties were the main causes of poor student mental health. Perhaps unsurprisingly the rates at which students access counselling services rises in accordance to tuition fees. There is arguably more pressure than ever before to leave university a success, especially in an uncertain job market. Many students desperately want something to show for the huge financial investment they have made.
Despite NHS England’s call for a further one billion pounds of spending on mental health services by 2021, services have instead faced a series of budget cuts, the most recent totalling £4.5 million. Furthermore, the number of qualified psychiatric nurses working for the NHS has dropped 10% between 2010 and 2015. These cutbacks result in longer waiting times for those seeking treatment and inadequate levels of care. For someone struggling with their mental health it can be incredibly daunting to ask for help. Often, however, patients are being put on waiting lists up to 12 months long, leaving those with mental health problems to fend for themselves at their most venerable. The 2016 NUS survey found that 33% of students, and 55% of LGBT students, had experienced suicidal thoughts within the past year and the long waiting times only serve to endanger these students, allowing their health to deteriorate. Often people are not able to get the help they need until they have already reached crisis point.
The good news is that University Counselling has been found to be highly effective for most students, with 75% of those who used the service reporting significant improvement. Still, more needs to be done in order to de-stigmatise mental health and to ensure that counselling is easily accessible and welcoming to all students. Freshers need to be given clear information about university mental health services and how to access them and, in addition, it is essential that university staff are trained in mental health awareness so that they are better able to recognise and support a student who is struggling.
This being said, and as effective as university counselling can be, universities should not have to stand in for NHS mental health services. The cuts the Conservative government has made to vital mental health services mean that many students struggle to receive treatment and at present 72% of doctors feel that the care young people receive is inadequate. Although mental health is often presented as ‘just something that happens’ in an attempt to de-politicise the issue, the link between poor mental health and the financial insecurity and adversity faced by students cannot be ignored. Through tightening their own parties purse strings, students are ultimately suffering.