It’s time we faced up to the mental health epidemic

Almost half of students say they’ve suffered from depression or anxiety

There is an endemic lack of pastoral care at our universities. Hundreds die every year from suicide – it’s the biggest killer of young men. For us as a news site, it’s hard to report out of fear that more in a similar situation will take their own life.

A few months ago, we ran a mental health survey. As always, surveys will be answered by people who have an attachment to whatever topic we’re questioning – drugs, sex, money and jobs are all things we have quizzed you on before. But our mental health survey had 12,000 respondents – and 5,500 of the students and graduates who answered admitted to having a mental health problem.

A year ago I interviewed Hayley, a student at my alma mater Nottingham, who had come seconds from hanging herself in her room at uni. What started off as lack of sleep and an eating disorder became a crippling anxiety that drove her to the edge. When she told her tutor, he simply muttered she “must do better”.

It’s a crime of the health service, the counselling service, her department, tutor and lecturers, to fail to recall her lack of attendance, plummeting weight loss or even just to listen to her when she clearly relayed her suicidal thoughts. Whether through ignorance, arrogance or sheer stupidity, Hayley was neglected, passed from person to person in what seems an effort to protect reputation over student.

I dread to think how many more have suffered at Nottingham and other Russell Group universities, but this is now coming to light. Mental health services at unis are not up to scratch – a recent HEPI report recommended counselling be improved as an urgent priority. They recorded worryingly high levels of students admitting to suffering from anxiety for the second year running when they surveyed another 15,000 students.

The terrifying potential of these stats is that there are thousands more, battling these mental health problems, and not yet coming to terms with them or ready to admit to themselves, let alone to friends and complete strangers in counselling services, how they’re not feeling themselves.

Universities pursue excellence on the international stage, ranked by the prowess of research and academic intellect. Yet students, the chief funders of their establishments chase up the league tables, are left to deal with their problems on their own. We pay £9,000 a year, and that fact makes us feel more like customers than before. Not only do we demand a greater service from our lecturers and personal tutors, but for that money there is a duty of care that must be upheld – whether it’s decreed in the university’s mission statement or not.

In the words of Hayley’s tutor, the universities must now ‘do better’. There should be an overarching body who deals with these issues, who advises the Government, universities, their counselling services and GPs on how best to deal with the individuals who approach them for help. Lecturers and staff who have regular contact with students are not merely academics. They should have greater training on helping students – fresh from moving out of their parent’s home and into a new, strange, daunting and uncomfortable environment – to develop into young adults and to deal with internal issues.

Some are not as lucky as Hayley to have a network of support in their friends and family. There is a mental health epidemic that we must face up to as a generation and not merely leave to be stigmatised and swept under the rug.