Students' mental health 'at risk', psychiatrists warn

Students on campus
Image caption Students face greater pressures on mental health

Doctors are warning that the current generation of students has a greater risk of anxiety and depression than previous ones.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists says there are now many more students from less privileged backgrounds who are less prepared for university life.

Students also face rising debt and uncertain job prospects, it warns.

It is concerned universities may see counselling and support services as an easy target for cuts.

In a report seen exclusively by the BBC, the college says the massive expansion in the numbers of young people going into higher education has had a significant impact.

Universities are now educating a different type of student from the privileged minority of 20 years ago. Changes in wider society are also being seen on campus, with an increase in students from fractured families. At the same time, the financial cost of going to university has increased.

Dr John Callender, one of the report authors, said: "Many are having to work long hours in paid work on top of full-time academic studies. Many are less well-supported by their families than was the case in years gone by.

"The reasons for this are things like increased rates of marital breakdown and students being drawn from poorer social backgrounds."

He said there are also intense social pressures for many young people, living away from home and trying to live up to the expectation that these years should be a happy and sociable time.

Dropping out

During their years at university, it is thought about 4% of students will turn to counselling services for support. Recent research has suggested that these services are facing increasing demands for their advice.

For Liam Bore, being able to talk to someone made the difference between staying at university and dropping out.

He found himself struggling to maintain his studies after the death of two school friends was followed only a year later by the loss of his mother.

"My concentration wasn't good, I couldn't take on what was going on in the lessons, and that had a big impact on my grades."

With support from the counselling service at the University of Hertfordshire, Liam has negotiated extra time to complete his final assignments and now hopes to leave with a good degree.

Some universities are investing more in support services, in recognition that if students leave their course, it can damage their prospects and lead to the university losing their fees.

Eileen Smith, the head of counselling at the University of Hertfordshire and a joint author of the report, has been advising first-year students about the help available as part of their freshers' week.

She agrees this is a generation for whom the pressures are greater, as many are the first in their family to reach university.

"They might find it harder to negotiate with tutors, they're less sure what to expect, and less confident about asking for help.

"Sometimes there is a lot of pressure on them to succeed. They can be carrying the hopes of a whole family."

The report warns that despite the growing demands, there are concerns for the future of some welfare services, with reports of some universities in England already freezing posts as a result of the financial pressures on higher education.

The RCPsych says this is a crucial time in the lives of young people, whether for temporary support, or early diagnosis of major mental illnesses.

It wants academic staff to receive more training, and greater incentives for GPs interested in running dedicated health services for students.

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