• The Insight Network and student organisation Dig-In have surveyed 21,027 students and found that 42% have had a serious problem for which they needed professional help

  • 27% of students have had one or more official mental health diagnoses and 8 in 10 students with a mental health diagnosis have concealed their symptoms due to stigma

  • If you are a student struggling with mental health, find a therapist here

The number of students struggling with a mental health problem is increasing according to The Insight Network and student organisation Dig-In. The largest mental health survey ever conducted on UK university students releases its annual data today, March 10, revealing an 8% rise year-on-year of those with a serious personal, emotional, behavioural or mental health problem for which they needed professional help. The figure now stands at almost half of the student population (42%).

What are students struggling with?

Furthermore, 27% of students have had one or more official mental health diagnoses, a 5% rise year-on-year (from 22%). And 8 in 10 (78%) of those diagnosed have concealed their symptoms due to stigma. The most common mental health diagnoses were depression and anxiety disorders (12% and 11% of the sample, respectively), followed by bipolar disorder (0.5%). Anxiety disorders encompass OCD, general anxiety disorders and phobias.

Welldoing.org therapist Charlotte Wickers, who works as a university counsellor, explores why students may be particularly vulnerable to mental health issues: "Students are negotiating a period of transition and separation - from home to away; from school to higher education; and from childhood to adulthood. Whilst the new-found freedom of uni can be exciting, the change in lifestyle also involves loss. The usual support network of friends, family and perhaps sexual partner, and any medical/learning/psychological support has been left behind. Sometimes there’s culture shock to cope with, too – a move from a rural home to a city setting, for example, or from a home country far away. A whole new set of connections is having to be made. Now the student is living with strangers, managing their shopping, cooking and cleaning themselves, negotiating the university timetable, meeting academic deadlines … all this in addition to trying to make new friends. 

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the student may, at times, long for the security and familiarity of home. This longing may well be unconscious, and is commonly defended against with strategies such as drinking or drug-taking, manic socialising, promiscuity or, conversely, withdrawing to an isolated state in their room. 

For some, separation from home can trigger deeper, unconscious relational issues around separation or trauma from childhood or teenage years. When this happens, the student can find themselves feeling depressed without understanding why, and it can lead to more serious self-harming activity or suicidal ideation. Student wellbeing services are always aware of separation issues, and the student counsellor will be working with the lingering ‘child’ in the room."

What support is available for students with mental health difficulties?

In addition, 82% of students are aware of the support services offered by their university but worryingly only 13% have accessed them. However two thirds (63%) of students said that if they had online access to a mental health professional, they would make use of this service raising real questions about the most effective methods of support, and whether services need to adapt digitally with this in mind.

The Insight Network and student organisation Dig-In have collaborated for three years now, building a large-scale picture of UK students’ mental health by exploring prevalence rates, risk factors and specific at-risk groups. Plus levels of anxiety, loneliness, substance misuse, and thoughts of self-harm. 

Christopher Platt, founder and CEO of Dig-In says: “As the provider of the official student welcome box to over 160 universities and accommodation providers and with over 180k Dig-In members, Dig-In is in a unique position with privileged access to students. We want to use this as a force for good.

Having experienced challenges with my mental health, this is a cause close to my heart. I set out in 2017 to conduct the largest ever study into student mental health. To date, over 80,000 students have taken part in the study. I hope to further raise the profile of mental health issues in students and collaborate with key stakeholders and the NHS in this area to improve support services, the engagement with those services and help ensure every student has the opportunity to reach their full potential.”

Dr Stephen Pereira, consultant psychiatrist and Director of the Insight Network, comments: “Mental health problems can cause severe emotional, behavioural and physical health problems. In order for universities and government agencies to provide effective and efficient psychological support it is crucial to understand the scale and psychological makeup of the student mental health challenge in the UK.

There are some causes for concern about student mental health detailed in this report. Mental health issues can be effectively managed if individuals are able to access the right treatment in adequate time. We hope that these findings will serve as both a call to action and a guide for students, their family and friends plus universities, the NHS and government agencies to work together to meet students’ mental health needs.”

Read the full report here 

Further reading

Student mental health: what can parents do from afar?

Can mindfulness reduce student stress?

Why do university students see counsellors?

Surviving university: Freshers Week and beyond

When your child leaves for university