Exclusive: Over half of students at Durham say they have suffered from a mental illness

Just two per cent said they used Nightline

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“I don’t blame the university for my own mental health, but so many more things could be done”.

Holly was suffering from severe PTSD. She was self-harming repeatedly and frequently threatened suicide. After a failed attempt, her housemates turned to college welfare. They were told that self-harm is a recognised coping mechanism, and to call the police if she were to act dangerously again.

“As her friends, we felt absolutely helpless”, one housemate said. “Are we supposed to call the police every time she locks herself in her room? What if she just needs some space and time alone?”

A student at Durham, Holly’s case is a glimpse into the murky world of what is often called a mental health ‘crisis’ on university campuses. But is the term accurate or helpful? And what more should the uni do?

What do students say?

Responding to The Tab’s 2017 mental health survey, 54 per cent of participants studying at Durham University said they have suffered from a mental illness.

Of these, 57 per cent said they had been diagnosed by a doctor, while 41 per cent of all Durham respondents said that they had been clinically depressed.

Suicide, the leading cause of student death in the UK, is a particular challenge: 37 per cent said they had had suicidal thoughts, but just a quarter thought suicide was handled well or very well by the university.

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Sophie, like Holly has a history of mental illness. In her case, it was anxiety and depression. At the end of her second year at Durham, she decided to take a year out in France.

She told The Tab: “When on my year abroad, the pastoral support was absolutely non-existent. I don’t blame the university for my own mental health, but so many more things could be done to make such a difficult transition easier. Even just a ‘how’s it going?’ email would’ve made a world of difference.”

How will the university respond?

Owen Adams, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) told The Tab that recent growth in mental health issues “reflects perhaps a growing incidence but certainly also a culture of confidence in disclosing and seeking help for mental health issues.”

“We support students with enduring mental health difficulties and students experiencing more transient states of challenges to mental wellbeing”, he said.

ONS: Student wellbeing is well below population average

He added that the university “has a counselling team offering a Monday-Friday service and additional evening service in term time” and that it has “very strong links with the NHS”.

The uni says it is responding to growing pressure. Its new Mental Health Policy, approved last week and to begin on 1 October 2017, just as the next crop of freshers arrive, distinguishes mental wellbeing from mental illness.

Following NHS guidelines, it identifies mental wellbeing as a “dynamic state that describes our current capacity to enjoy life and to work productively and creatively.” Mental illness, by contrast, “can be acute or chronic, and may arise from organic, genetic, psychological, relational or behavioural factors”.

Appendix I to Durham’s new Student Mental Health Policy

But it is unclear how the policy will relieve the strain on the counselling service. 885 students used it in 2009-2010 and 1,400 in 2014-15. The number this year is likely to be nearer 2,000 – around 10 per cent of all students at the university.

Durham ranked 19th out of the 30 universities surveyed by The Tab in last year’s mental health survey. In 2015/16, the university spent roughly £23 per student on its counselling service, up from £20 in 2011/12 – but still around average in the UK.

405 Durham students responded to The Tab’s 2017 mental health survey, out of a total student population of 17,927.

Note: To protect the privacy of the students interviewed in this article, their names have been changed.