The declining state of student mental health in universities and what can be done

2nd Oct 2018
Families, children and young people

This content mentions suicide or suicidal thoughts. Please read with care. There are details of where to find help at the bottom of this page.

As thousands of 18 year olds in the UK have begun, or are about to begin, their university experience, starting with the infamous ‘freshers’ week, now is an opportune moment to discuss the mental health crisis in universities.

Why are university students of particular concern? Given that the majority of mental health problems develop by the age of 241, university students are a group at high risk of having mental health problems.

Starting university is a major life transition2, and can be both exciting and overwhelming. Not only must students manage multiple academic and social pressures, they must also navigate developmental challenges as they transition to adulthood.3

Students today are faced with unique concerns compared to students in the past. This includes the stress of unprecedented financial burden from student loans and increased tuition fees, and the potentially negative consequences on wellbeing of the use of digital technologies and social media.4,5

Photo of two students sitting with a laptop beside them

The statistics

Recent statistics reveal the extent of the student mental health crisis in the UK. In 2015 and 2016, over 15,000 first-year students in UK universities reported that they had a mental health problem, compared to approximately 3,000 in 2006.6

This increase in disclosure is mirrored by a 94% of higher education institutions reporting an increase in demand for their counselling services.6 Despite the surge in help-seeking behaviour, there is evidence to suggest that there are many more students who do not seek treatment for mental health problems.3

There are a range of implications of worsening mental health among students. Poor mental health has been associated with poorer academic outcomes7, as students tend to be less able to effectively manage stress and pressure and, thus, their ability to perform given tasks productively is diminished.8

Why it’s a problem

They may also be more likely to drop out of university: statistics highlight a 210% increase in university dropouts among students with mental health problems from 2009 and 2010 to 2014 and 2015.6 Of even greater concern is that student suicides have increased by 79% from 2007 (75) to 2015 (134).6

Indeed, student mental health is being pushed higher up the government’s agenda. In June of this year, universities minister Sam Gyimah announced a new package of measures, including a University Mental Health Charter and a working group to support students transitioning from school into university.9

What can be done?

While this package is promising and reflects a wider commitment to improve student mental health, a more proactive approach needs to be taken at government and NHS level, and at the university and higher education level.6

This includes universities adopting a whole-university approach to student mental health, which should be informed by best practice. Universities and higher education institutions should seek to implement currently available programmes to strengthen the current evidence base and identify what refinements are required.

Through improving and strengthening this research base, evidence-based investment decisions regarding mental health provision in universities can be made.3,10

Addressing mental health in students can have a positive effect on mental health in later life. By ensuring student mental health is treated as a societal concern, we can encourage early intervention and action.

By intervening early, at a critical transition point in young people’s lives, we can avoid the long-term risks associated with poor mental health, which can have far-reaching consequences for the next generation.7

If you are feeling like ending your life or feel unable to keep yourself safe, please call 999 or go to A&E and ask for the contact of the nearest crisis resolution team. These are teams of mental health care professionals who work with people in severe distress. If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.

  1. Kessler, R., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. and Walters, E. (2005). Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), p.593.
  2. Parker, J., Summerfeldt, L., Hogan, M. and Majeski, S. (2004). Emotional intelligence and academic success: examining the transition from high school to university. Personality and Individual Differences,
  3. (1), pp.163-172. 3 Hunt, J. and Eisenberg, D. (2010). Mental Health Problems and Help-Seeking Behavior Among College Students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(1), pp.3-10.
  4. Brown P (2016) The Invisible Problem? Improving students’ mental health, Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). Available at [Accessed on 24/08/18]
  5. Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D., Lin, N., Shablack, H., Jonides, J. and Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults. PLoS ONE, 8(8), p.e69841.
  6. Institute for Public Policy Research (2017) Not by degrees: improving student mental health in the UK’s universities. Available at [Accessed on 24/08/18]
  7. Bruffaerts, R., Mortier, P., Kiekens, G., Auerbach, R., Cuijpers, P., Demyttenaere, K., Green, J., Nock, M. and Kessler, R. (2018). Mental health problems in college freshmen: Prevalence and academic functioning. Journal of Affective Disorders, 225, pp.97-103.
  8. Poh Keong, P., Chee Sern, L., Ming, F. and Che, I. (2015) ‘The relationship between mental health and academic achievement among university students–A literature review’, in Second International Conference on Global Trends in Academic Research, Bandung, Global Illuminators.

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