At a recent conference (“The Higher Education Data Conference 2019,” 2019) there were two presentation that we thought would have some relevance for student facing services. Together they indicate that while students tend to have greater anxiety than their counter parts not in higher education, Universities do act as a protective environment reducing the level of suicide.
A report written three years ago found that “Students in higher education are typically at an age that is vulnerable to developing mental illness. Three-quarters of those with a mental illness first have symptoms before their mid-20s The peak of onset for most disorders is between the ages of 8 and 25. Over 50 per cent of full-time undergraduates fall into this age range. Moreover, suicide is the second most common cause of death among young people worldwide” (Brown, 2016).
With this in mind HEPI’s Rachel Hewitt, Director of Policy and Advocacy, took us through some of the latest research on student wellbeing. From HEPI’s own Student Academic Experience Survey (Neves & Hillman, 2019), the wellbeing section compared ONS data on similarly aged adults (20-24years). Students have shown, consistently since 2016, substantially lower levels of wellbeing as measured by low levels of life satisfaction, life worthwhile, happiness and higher levels of anxiety (measured as low numbers reporting low anxiety) than the national average. Amongst these, LGB+ students indicate particularly low levels of wellbeing.
The Unite Students Insight Report 2019 (Unite Students, 2019) noted that since 2016 there has been a 5% increase in the number of first year students that have a mental health condition—that is almost 1 in 5 students (17%) now. In terms of help seeking, of these students slightly more than half see their condition as something that they have to deal with by themselves, with less than a third (27%) feeling comfortable reaching out for help, possibly because of the stigma associated with the condition. Slightly more than a third would talk to their friends, only 23% would trust their university to provide adequate support. Parents or guardians are the least turned to for help, only 16% of these students would expect support from them.
Despite this the Student Experience Survey did find that only 18% of students were not happy for parents or guardians to be contacted if there were concerns about their mental health. Overall 66% said it was acceptable, under extreme circumstances, though this was less so with mature students (aged 26+). Also the Unite Students report found that those students that did access wellbeing or mental health services said that on the whole it was similar to or better than they expected, with only 13% saying that its impact was worse than they expected.
The second presentation by Neil Bannister, Assistant Deputy Director Health Analysis ONS, took us through some of their findings from an analysis of suicide statistics among young people. Despite the high profile of recent incidents, and while the numbers have increased slightly in the last few years, the study concludes that “the rate of suicide is lower than that seen in the general population among people of a similar age” In terms of ethnicity, suicide is higher amongst white students when compared to black, but otherwise the characteristics like age and sex reflect those in the general population. Namely, suicide is more likely amongst men than women, and incidents increase with age. This research fed into Universities UK’s guidance for universities on preventing student suicides https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/news/Pages/guidance-for-universities-on-preventing-student-suicides.aspx .
Presentations from the conference can be found below.