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Prevalence of mental health issues among university students

The proportion of home students (students who normally live in the UK) who disclosed a mental health condition to their university has increased rapidly since 2010 and was over 5% in 2020/21.

Chart titled "Mental health conditions reported by students in 2020/21 nearly seven times as high as a decade earlier" showing home students reporting a mental health condition in England

However, surveys of students where responses are confidential have found much higher rates of poor mental health than disclosed to universities. In a 2022 survey by the mental health charity Student Minds, 57% of respondents self-reported a mental health issue (PDF) and 27% said they had a diagnosed mental health condition.

The consequences of mental health issues for students range from poor academic performance and dropping out of university, to self-harm and suicide.

While there is some evidence the overall suicide rate for students increased in the decade to 2017/18, it fell in 2018/19 and 2019/20. However, the Office for National Statistics has warned the small annual numbers mean it is difficult to identify statistically significant differences over time. Suicide rates among students are lower than for other young people and the general population.

Factors contributing to poor mental health among students

According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, factors that contribute to students having poor mental health include moving away from home, academic and financial pressures, and the absence of familiar social and emotional support networks.

Office for National Statistics data shows that during the Covid-19 pandemic, students reported higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of happiness than the general population. Many students have also said the rising cost of living has negatively affected their mental health (PDF).

Do universities have a duty of care to students?

The Government has often asserted that universities have a duty of care to their students, but it acknowledged in March 2023 that “the existence and application of a duty of care between HE [higher education] providers and students has not been widely tested in the courts”.

This acknowledgement followed the May 2022 court judgment in the case of Abrahart v University of Bristol (PDF), which was brought by the parents of a student who died by suicide while studying at the University of Bristol. The judge found there is “no statute or precedent” concerning a duty of care owed by a university to a student to take reasonable steps to avoid and not to cause injury, including psychiatric injury and harm.

Nevertheless, some sector bodies and legal firms maintain universities have a general duty of care not to cause harm by careless acts or omissions in certain circumstances. Universities also have established legal duties arising from health and safety, safeguarding, and equalities legislation.

This question is explored in more detail in the full briefing.

Government policy on students’ mental health

The Government believes the most effective way to support students’ mental health is through a “two-pronged approach” of funding services and working with mental health experts and the sector to implement best practice.

The Government’s work in supporting students’ mental health includes:

  • Asking the Office for Students (OfS), which regulates higher education in England, to allocate £15 million towards student mental health in the 2022/23 academic year.
  • Working with the OfS to provide Student Space, a dedicated mental health and wellbeing platform for students.
  • Appointing a Student Support Champion to advise universities on supporting students who may be struggling and at risk of dropping out.
  • Working with the higher education sector in support of the Suicide Safer Universities framework, the Stepchange framework, and the University Mental Health Charter programme.

Guidance and support from universities

In September 2018, Universities UK and Papyrus, a national charity for preventing young suicide, published Suicide-safer Universities, a framework to help university staff understand student suicide, mitigate risk, and intervene when students get into difficulties. In October 2022, Universities UK added guidance on sharing information with trusted contacts, supporting placement students, and what to do after a student dies by suicide. 

In December 2019, the University Mental Health Charter was published. It is a set of principles universities can adopt to improve the mental health and wellbeing of their communities.

Universities UK’s Stepchange Framework was introduced in 2017 and relaunched in 2020 as Stepchange: Mentally healthy universities. It is a strategic framework for a whole-university approach to mental health and wellbeing.

University support for students’ mental health

Universities are autonomous institutions, and the way mental health support is provided varies across the sector. The most common model of mental health provision involves three services:

  • wellbeing services to deliver low-intensity support and signpost to non-medical services;
  • counselling services for students with moderate mental distress; and
  • disability services for students who receive disabled students’ allowances and have a diagnosed mental illness.

A 2023 survey of 4,000 UK students by the Tab, a student news site, and Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a suicide prevention charity, found just 12% of respondents think their university handles the issue of mental health well.

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