One in every five students in the second and third year of their undergraduate studies on campuses in the United Kingdom does not have a ‘real friend’ at university. This is the outcome of a survey of more than 12,000 students nationally according to the finding as reported in the global edition of the University World News. The paper says this connects to renewed fears that students are struggling with loneliness and declining mental health.
The research report is bound to be disturbing for both the Western and non-Western world. While the individualism in industrial societies might account for the reality in the UK, it is bound to be the economic crisis and various forms of ‘militant particularisms’ in the case of African campuses, for instance, where ‘privacy’ as understood in the West is not applicable. Students on most African campuses share on a reciprocal bases or what the World Bank would call the economy of affection. The rest of the report goes as follows:
Some 42% of students have experienced suicidal thoughts at some time, the survey reveals. Of these, 24% – amounting to more than one in 10 of all students – say that their thoughts turned to suicide for the first time during university; and 16% say that they have had the urge to hurt or harm themselves in the past 12 months.
The survey, carried out by student market research consultancy Cibyl for Accenture during the COVID-19 pandemic, found that as social restrictions and other impacts of the pandemic continue, more than half – 55% – of students say they feel lonely every day or every week and 45% say they have been avoiding socialising in person or online with others.
The isolation currently felt by students appears to be contributing significantly towards declining mental health, the Accenture report says. Four in 10 students – 39% – report a deterioration in their mental health since starting university, and more than half – 53% – have experienced at least seven symptoms of poor mental health over the past year.
Dasha Karzunina, head of research at Cibyl, said: “It is clear that feeling connected and supported has a significant impact on students’ mental well-being.”
Different experiences of mental health
The report of the survey also reveals that students from different backgrounds have different experiences when it comes to mental health. Those with longer term or more serious mental health issues are much more likely to have their mental health decline further at university (58%), followed by neurodiverse students (49%), those with disabilities (45%), women (43%) and LGBTQ students (42%).
Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds show higher rates of having suicidal thoughts (47%). Some 67% of LGBQ and 81% of transgender students will have had such thoughts at some point in their lives, the report said.
Ben West, a recent graduate, said: “No student should have to pay for a degree with their life. This report shines a vital light on the areas which universities must improve to better support all students, many of whom have spent the last year feeling forgotten and ignored.
“I really hope universities and government take on board the findings and recommendations in this report and act to better the industry to help those people whose lives depend on this change.”
The survey was conducted online between October 2020 and December 2020 and was completed by 12,014 students from 140 universities.
Barbara Harvey, managing director and mental health sponsor at Accenture UK, said: “University is a formative part of so many young people’s lives and can be a great leveller when it comes to the career opportunities open to students from all backgrounds.
“However, our research reveals that, despite the resources and support services universities provide, university is not a dream experience for everyone and there’s a significant disconnect between the experiences of different students”
Karzunina said: “Universities are well positioned to create a healthier culture and improve their students’ resilience. We hope that the findings and recommendations of this report inspire action from both universities and employers to better understand, educate and support their students and graduates, and to continue conversations about mental health to tackle stigma head on”
Pandemics, preparedness and pressure
Unsurprisingly, the report says, COVID-19 has played a significant role in eroding students’ well-being, with 80% saying that it has contributed to their poor mental health. However, the poor state of student mental health preceded the pandemic; only 13% of students attribute their mental health challenges fully to COVID-19.
Preparation for the university experience is a sticking point when it comes to mental health. Only one in 10 students claim they felt completely prepared for the reality of university life, with those feeling less prepared more likely to report mental health challenges (44% versus 32%). Perhaps most significantly, they were 1.6 times more likely to see their mental health decline since starting university (54% vs 33%).
Worryingly, Harvey noted in the foreword to the report that half the students “didn’t feel their mental health was supported at university and many are reluctant, or unable, to access the care they need”.
Making mental health matter
In reality, most universities offer – either directly, through the National Health Service, or through other organisations – a range of support from general (general practitioner-led) health centres to dedicated mental wellness centres and crisis services such as the telephone service Nightline that are run by the students themselves.
The report says universities are well aware of the need to provide mental health support, and virtually all of them do. But the research reveals that most students are not using the services on offer, with 60% of respondents who have a mental health challenge stating they do not access any support provided.
When asked why they do not seek mental health support at university, four in 10 (42%) said it was simply a case of not knowing what to say or how to express their feelings.
The data showed this uncertainty to be particularly high among overseas African Caribbean students – among this group 34% aren’t sure how to describe their mental health.
Also, it was not just mental health services that students were not opening up to. Although most talk to family or friends, only 11% talk to university support staff and 9% to academic staff. Significantly 17% talk to no-one, which rises to 32% of men and 20% of ethnic minority students.
Most effective services
The report says mentors and buddies top the list when it comes to the effectiveness of service (80% of users rate them as effective), outperforming more traditional (and more popular) services such as GPs (61% effectiveness) and well-being support services (63% effectiveness).
Mental health advisers and stress management workshops were rated as second and third most effective services (72% and 71% effectiveness, respectively).
Students who saw their university as one that supported good mental health in general (as well as during the pandemic) and who knew how to access help were nearly three times less likely to say their mental health had declined since starting there, the report says.
It says the introduction of a charter for mental health among universities has been an important first step. And the development of an impartial standard against which universities could be assessed and held accountable “would do much to make the efficacy of mental health services and the culture of these institutions more transparent and, ultimately, a better fit for purpose”.
Framework for action on mental health
The report stresses that the experience and voice of the student “should be at the heart of every action”.
To address the findings of the research, Accenture has proposed a framework for universities to help address student mental health and well-being:
- Know: Understand the mental health risk profile of your students even before they start and proactively target interventions.
- Support: Provide the right level of support, making it easy and a natural act to access it. Offer multiple channels to allow students to choose an approach that’s right for them.
- Teach: Educate students on what good mental health is, how to maintain it, the value of seeking help early and how to support themselves and others.
- Connect: Help students to adapt to university life, forge meaningful friendships and reduce loneliness: there is a strong correlation between feeling connected and well-being.
- Culture: University chancellors should adopt the principles enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath – “Do no harm” and “Prevention is better than cure”. Harvey said: “With almost half of young people in the UK now going into higher education, and this year’s cohort doing so after 18 months of disrupted learning and social lives, universities must enhance both the technology-based and human mental health support on offer for those that need it.”