Have students got a problem with food?

More than six in ten 17- to 23-year-olds have “possible problems with eating”, and the problem is worse in the upper half of that age bracket.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

That is one of the striking findings in this year’s wave of the NHS Mental Health of Children and Young People in England study, which indicates some interesting aspects of the youth mental health crisis that are worth universities and their SUs considering carefully.

We don’t really get to see consistent break outs of students from the rest of the population – but we do learn that one in five (22.2 per cent) of 17-24 year olds that are in education have a probable mental disorder (rising to almost 30 per cent for women), with a further 14 per cent with a possible disorder.

One particularly alarming finding surrounds possible eating disorders. The percentage of those screening positive for possible eating problems is 60.3 for 17 to 19 year olds, up from 44.6 in 2017 – and it’s higher for 20-23 year olds at 62.2 per cent (and 79.9 for girls/women).

The survey uses a different set of questions to that used by the ONS a year or so ago, but nevertheless suggests that universities ought to be taking food much more seriously as a mental health and student success issue than previously.

The other result that stands out surrounds loneliness. We might have expected the lockdowns in 2020 to generate a 13.8 per cent “often or always” score on loneliness for 17-24 year olds – but that has only fallen to 12.6 this year, up at 14 per cent for women/girls. Correlation isn’t causation, but there’s a close relationship with the likelihood of having a mental health disorder and loneliness in the data too.

Oh – and among 17 to 22 year olds with a probable mental disorder, 14.8 per cent reported living in a household that had experienced not being able to buy enough food or using a food bank in the past year, compared with 2.1 per cent of young people unlikely to have a mental disorder.

Frustratingly, while there are questions about “school” support, once young people hit 17-24 the NHS survey questions on isolation have no category for full-time students (while breaking out those in work, those in work plus education and those in neither). And while we learn about workplace support, it doesn’t ask about support from universities either. Who designs this stuff?

Earlier this week the BBC News features unit ran what amounts to an interesting lit review on students’ relationship with food more generally. It’s well worth a look.

3 responses to “Have students got a problem with food?

  1. Unfortunately in the Universities I have contact with/work in much of the dining comes under the control of the bricks and sticks directorate or outside facilities providers such as Sod(off)exo. In both cases profit rather than nutrition is the biggest driver, with both staff and students, apart from the highest echelons who have a silver salver dining room and international rated chef’s, suffering the same poor choices and grade of provided on campus food. I had hoped the independent Chinese restaurant operating in one new building on one campus might change that, but thus far it’s 3 months late for opening.

    From the linked BBC item its interesting students are more likely to gain weight, probably down the excessive amount of hidden sugars in their diet and energy drinks many seem addicted to. As for cooking for themselves, I’ll use my sons experience, he learnt how to cook years before university and was able to feed himself reasonably well, his part time job insainos helped with finding variety. Yet the female students in his halls flat all criticised him for cooking the complex dishes he liked, they preferred packets and excessively processed ready meals, I suspect they were envious of his ability to cook from scratch. Once out in a rented HMO with other males no-one criticised, even though they were envious at times, whilst eating their beans on toast… Oh the luxury, when I were a student it was half a can of cold beans straight out of the can on a good day!

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