A recent study has taken a close look at the problem of mental health within higher education, revealing worrying statistics about the extent of an issue which it refers to as “an invisible problem.”

Depression and anxiety problems within university are “invisible,” the study claims, as there is a widespread false perception that strong social networks and the prospect of improved employment opportunities should result in students having stronger mental health.

This is not the case, Poppy Brown, the writer of the research paper says, as:

“Survey data repeatedly show that, on average, students are less happy and more anxious than non-students, including other young people.”

The research reveals worrying statistics, including the finding that in 2016, amongst students who had strongly considered dropping out, 46 per cent reported feeling down or depressed, whilst an NUS survey from 2013 showed that 55 per cent of the university students questioned reported feeling anxiety and 49 per cent felt depressed. Meanwhile, according to the latest available data from 2004, only 25 per cent of children with mental health problems were in treatment.

Brown states that mental health has been a problem for too long. She cites a book by Ferdynand Zweig published over fifty years ago, based on detailed surveys and interviews with students from the University of Oxford and the University of Manchester, that said:

“The student of today is too hurried, too badly housed and working under too strenuous conditions … the mental climate of universities is ill-suited to relieving tensions, which often reach breaking point.”

Zweig, Brown says, recommended further development of university mental health services. Brown also quoted a former editor of the Independent, Chris Blackhurst, who spoke of the pressures that obtaining a degree in the modern climate entails:

“In my day … getting a 2.1 or a 2.2 was not regarded as a matter of life and death. Going back further still, for my parents’ generation, just going to university at all, any university, was regarded as an achievement … Not any more.”

The paper points to the difficulty of transition periods as a signal for students’ particular vulnerability to developing disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and drinking related problems. Another reason cited is the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect; students who are used to being the highest achievers in their school try to achieve the same levels in an environment where it is unrealistic to expect to be the best.

Other factors the study says have an adverse effect on student well-being are heavy workloads, the stress of student finance/debt, and unsatisfying living arrangements.

Brown highlights the importance of initiatives in her study, like Head of Oxford High School Judith Carlisle’s ‘The Death of Little Miss Perfect,’ which aims to teach students that real life is not about perfection. Student unions are also mentioned in a positive light for their role in helping students to adapt to a new environment.

Brown concludes her paper by saying that though “mental health and even life expectancy are better for people who have attended higher education compared to those who have not,” greater support is required for students who are at university and are yet to graduate.

It calls for greater organization within the NHS, allowing students more support whether they are at university or at home. Universities should also provide increased funding towards counseling services, the paper suggests. This, the study says, will not only have a profound effect on student well-being, but will also have a positive effect for universities on student retention.