Student Mental Health in Higher Education – an attempt to understand a changing student population and prepare for the future

Dennison, David (2016) Student Mental Health in Higher Education – an attempt to understand a changing student population and prepare for the future. In: 9th annual International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation, 14-16 Novermber 2016, Seville, Spain.

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Within UK higher education there is an ‘overwhelming consensus’ [1] that the student demand for mental health support is rising.
Over the last five years the proportion of disabled students who declared a mental health condition increased from 5.9% in 2007-08 to 9.6% in 2011-12 and from 0.4% to 0.8% of the entire student population. [2]

UCAS reports the numbers of UK accepted applicants declaring a disability increased from 23,772 in 2008-09 to 34,625 in 2013-14 [3]

In a recent report the drivers for this considerable increase in demand were identified as:
a more open culture in society concerning mental health; changes in healthcare leading to more reliable diagnoses at much earlier stages of students’ lives, and better quality treatment allowing students to access HE who would not have been able to do so in the past; institutions developing a reputation for supporting students; and greater financial and academic pressures on students leading to problems emerging during studies. [1]

The same report identified ‘increasing numbers disclosing pre-arrival; increasing needs emerging while students were at university; and increasing complexity of problems ... alongside other impairments’.[1]

Other types of disability support needs are not growing at the same rate: HE institutions are ‘not seeing the same level of increases in the numbers of students with complex physical or sensory impairments’. [1]

In 2012 the Mental Health Foundation reported that one in four people in the United Kingdom will have some kind of mental health difficulty in any given year. [4] This does not seem to be an issue confined to the UK - the European Commission has estimated that mental illness is experienced by one in 11 EU citizens [5]; evidence from Australia suggests that a substantial number of students may be attempting to complete university studies while managing problematic symptoms, behaviours or an emerging or diagnosed mental disorder [6], and reports from the USA suggest that ‘college students were reporting the lowest levels of emotional health in 25 years’. [7]

Buchanan [8] identifies poor mental health as having a negative impact on educational achievement as it presents a barrier to learning: something that ‘occupies our mind, preventing us from focusing the necessary attention on what needs to be learnt’. [9] This is clearly evidenced in a range of statistics, for example the simple fact that disabled students are more likely than non-disabled entrants to have left HE after their first year of study [10], and the assertion by Lipson et al: Overall, 35.5% of undergraduates met criteria for at least one mental health
Problem [11].

Thus poor mental health can have a profoundly negative impact on students and consequential negative effects on the HE institution. But these negatives do not have to be the only outcome – with appropriate support, students with a wide range of disabilities can ‘perform above the sector average in terms of degree attainment’ [12]. (In the UK this ‘appropriate support’ would include the support provided by the Disabled Students Allowance)

This paper provides an outline of some key research into student mental health and provides examples of current best practice in terms of supporting students, engaging with mental health and supporting all staff, academic and non-academic, in a shared endeavour to help students overcome the stigma of poor mental health and the associated educational challenges they often face.

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