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Are freshers the new realists when it comes to mental health support?

A new report from Unite breaks down the state of mental health support during the transition to university. Jenny Shaw has the data
This article is more than 4 years old

Jenny Shaw is Higher Education External Engagement Director for Unite Students, and is seconded part-time to the Higher Education Mental Health Implementation Taskforce

“I had an issue in Freshers’,” said Lucy, “so this was like three days into me moving into the university house and I just had a meltdown and I had no idea what to do. So I was literally, like, I have known these people for 48 hours, where do I go? So I rang up one of them and she came upstairs and now we’re best friends and I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

The New Realists” report offers an insight into how students themselves perceive the transition to university and their experience of the first year. Among other findings, it reveals how applicants and students view and manage their own mental health and wellbeing.

You may not be surprised to learn that the incidence of student mental ill-health has risen again, from 12% in 2016 to 17% among first year students this year. These numbers are extracted from a wider, and standard, disability question so should give an accurate measure of those with a specific condition that affects their day to day life.

Dealing with a mental health condition

We found no evidence of snowflakery here, in fact quite the opposite with 49% of applicants and students with a mental health condition saying it’s something they need to deal with themselves, whereas only 17% believe their parents should be their primary support. Over a quarter of students with a mental health condition have not told their parents.

Disclosure to parents when there is a serious cause for concern has been a hot topic over the last two years. Our 2017 report Reality Check established that the majority of applicants agree with disclosure in these circumstances, but that those with a mental health condition were less likely to do so. This does not mean universities cannot share information with parents, but it does mean that student data preferences need to be captured sensitively and kept up to date. It also means that this approach is not a catch-all solution for those with an existing condition.

To complicate things further only 53% of students who have a mental health condition had disclosed it to their university by the end of their first year, and just 28% trusted that their university would be able to offer them the right level of support.

Is mental health support for “people like me”?

Turning to the wider first year population, 23% had used some kind of wellbeing, support or mental health service during their first year. These were rated highly on all aspects of the service, including the impact that it had on their wellbeing.

We assumed that most of those who hadn’t used the service would say they didn’t need to, but this wasn’t the case at all and in fact only half said this. Some were drawing support from friends and family, others said their problem wasn’t big enough, but perhaps the most interesting responses were those that represented student feeling excluded, or excluding themselves, from these services:

  • I don’t think they can help me
  • I was too anxious or afraid
  • I didn’t feel comfortable with the university knowing
  • I didn’t think it was for people like me

The number selecting one or more of these reasons represents a quarter of the whole first year population. Higher rates were seen among students with a disability or mental health condition, and elsewhere in the survey almost half of those with a mental health condition said it carried a stigma. LGBT+ students were more than twice as likely to say that they were too anxious or afraid to use services.

Help from my friends

Students talked a lot about the supportive role played by friends, and in the survey those with a mental health condition were significantly more likely to agree that they were comfortable talking to friends about it than “reaching out for help”. This is in line with the findings of our 2017 Reality Check report, in which 85% said they would turn to their peers if they were “struggling”.

However, not all students have equal access to a supportive network of friends: 26% of students often or always felt lonely. Given that this survey took place in May, towards the end of their first year, this seemed surprisingly high. And this loneliness had an impact on happiness, life satisfaction and feeling that the things they do in life are worthwhile. For example, 50% of students who are often or always lonely feel happy, compared to 90% of those who are never lonely.

Once again it was LGBT+ students (39%) and students with a disability or mental health condition (45%) that seemed to be at a disadvantage, reporting these much higher rates of loneliness. Together with the findings about their use of services, this suggests the need for greater understanding of the way these students experience exclusion, anxiety and perceived stigma during their first year at university.

Overall, students are highly self-determining when it comes to managing their own wellbeing. University services are effective when used, but these findings suggest a need for improved communication and engagement: with all students, to normalise help-seeking and to continue to destigmatise mental health; with students supporting their peers, to offer support and resources; and with students’ unions and accommodation providers to create integrated approaches to tackling loneliness.

The New Realists” is published by Unite Students and HEPI. Unite Students will be inviting partner universities to discuss the report findings at a series of round table events later this year, and will be speaking at the CUBO Winter Conference in November and the AMOSSHE Winter Conference in February.

3 responses to “Are freshers the new realists when it comes to mental health support?

  1. Having witnessed the isolation of male students in mixed hall flats, where the females ganged up on lone males, there’s a lot more loneliness and even deliberate ostracisation (bullying) going on that the Universities wilfully ignore.

    That most students know no one isn’t unusual, but with the ever decreasing level of social skills due to living in an on-line world, being over protected by bull-dozer parents and fed unending doom by the mainstream media are all factors in young peoples ability to cope with new and previously unknown experiences.

    With limited contact time most supervising academics often don’t pick up on any warning signs, admin even less, though they might write the procedures and guidance most have no direct contact with students, often it’s the technicians who pick-up the warning signs and having the contact time assist students the most during the working day, night time is the time of greatest risk…

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