The Higher Education Statistics Agency recently announced that that dropout rates from university – with mental health as the cause – have more than tripled since 2009. With almost half a million students starting university this autumn, ensuring that there is support in place for those needing mental health services is of concern to students, parents and universities.

University is a life changing event for most students, but where previously students focused on studying and socialising, with the rise in fees, students now focus on studying and working.   In addition, starting university for many students, is the first time they will have lived away from home for any length of time. They will need to manage not only their studies, but new elements of their lives – finances and budgeting, time management, making new friends and establishing new support networks.  With the pressure to perform ever increasing and social perfection also an issue, mental health support teams perform a crucial service at university.

Universities have seen a rise in the numbers of students accessing mental health support, both from students already diagnosed prior to attending university but also once there. Once away from home and the support networks there, students can struggle to ask for help at university or even realise they need it. So what can universities do to combat these issues and prevent mental ill health?

  • Establishing awareness of mental health amongst academic and support staff can be an excellent starting point as they are often the first people to be aware that a student may have an issue. Training around the different conditions can also help when a student has disclosed a diagnosis.

  • It is also important to have good signposting and support networks in place so that when students reach out or divulge an issue to a member of staff, there is a clear pathway to accessing that support.

  • The support services should also ensure there is a good triaging system in place so that candidates who need to be seen urgently do not endure long waits – and equally that resources are allocated so that during busy times such as freshers week/exam season, there is extra support available.

Although the onus isn’t on students to support themselves through difficult periods alone, the importance of self-care and asking for help should be emphasised. This can be done in several ways.

  • Where students already have a diagnosis – and a support plan in place – and have disclosed this to the university, then this should be picked up by support services and relevant contact details passed on to the student. Even if this is just general information, it’s important to emphasise that this is where they can go to seek help and support, particularly if they feel things are getting on top of them.

  • If a student does not have a prior diagnosis but is struggling, perhaps not socialising, having difficulty sleeping and studying is an issue, then clear and simple information about how to access help should be available within academic departments, halls of residence, student unions and societies and within medical/GP surgeries. Students with problems can often `slip through the net` and not want to admit to any issues, so the easier it is for them to confide and seek help, the better.

  • Self-care is a term often misused online, but it’s essential to mental health wellbeing. This means eating well and sleeping well, getting health concerns checked out, making sure that they’re checking in with new friends and talking to family back home. Looking after themselves is a priority and cannot be emphasised enough. They should also consider light exercise – perhaps joining a sports or activity club – as another form of self-care.

  • If they have received a diagnosis and have been offered support in the form of councelling or therapy – and medication, then it’s important to remind students to follow up on this and reach out for the help. To make regular appointments with the GP to track how they’re feeling and particularly when taking medication as this can take some time to adjust to – and with some mental health conditions it can take some time to find the right medication and dosage.

Above all with students, they should be encouraged to always reach out and seek help. That they’ve not failed or let anyone down – far from it – and that they don’t need to struggle on by themselves.  To help students best, the support available needs to be joined up from academic, residential and medical teams so that wherever a student reaches out, they can be guided to and receive support in a reasonable time frame and appropriate to their needs.