Mental health: Are our young people in crisis?

With reports of rising mental health in young people, is the UK in a critical condition? Kelly Tyler investigates.


According to an Institute for Public Policy Research report, 19% of 16-24-year-olds in England now experience a mental health condition – up from 15% in 2003.

Controversially, young people who became adults in the 2010s, are now being coined ‘Generation Snowflake’ – “overly sensitive” adolescents who are “less resilient and more prone to take offence than previous generations.” So popular the term, it has even been added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But Gareth Hughes, Researcher and Psychotherapist at the University of Derby, says there are a number of reasons why mental health is on the rise in young people – and it is not because they are too emotionally vulnerable.

What’s causing the rise?

“This is a complex social and cultural problem with many interlocking causes,” expresses Gareth.

“There has been a change in the way the education system works, which has had a big impact. Schools are extremely focused on exam grades, raising extrinsic motivation and stripping out opportunities to develop students’ broader skills and confidence.

“Parenting styles have also changed. Many parents feel under pressure to deliver the perfect childhood and so they are stepping in to manage emotional stress for their children. This means there are less learning opportunities for children to develop things like self-soothing skills.

“Social media is also having a significant impact on young people’s focus and sleep patterns and, for some, can increase feelings and fears of social isolation.”

According to a report by the Prince’s Trust, young people’s happiness and confidence in their emotional health has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded.

What effect is this having?

The Trust’s Macquarie Youth Index report, which surveyed more than 2,000 16-25 year olds, found the biggest declines in happiness relate to young people’s work or education, their emotional health and money – with 48% of people worried about their emotional health.

The number of students who have declared a mental health problem to their university has also increased dramatically over the past 10 years. More than 15,000 first-year university students disclosed a mental health problem in 2015-16 – almost five times the number in 2006-7. 

As a result of increasing levels of mental illness, distress and low wellbeing among students in higher education, the demand for services has dramatically risen, with waiting times also reported to be on the up.

Over the past five years, universities have reported a 94% increase in demand for counselling services, while 61% report an increase of over 25%.

“We are definitely seeing a rise in demand for services across the sector, as much as 150% for some institutions,” says Gareth. “We have also seen increasing complexity in the nature of the problems presented and increases in risk. More of our students are arriving with mental health problems or have not yet developed the skills to be successful at university and this impacts on their wellbeing and learning.

“We can’t pretend this isn’t happening – but students are here to learn and learning to overcome problems, manage their wellbeing and develop self-awareness is part of that.

Students are now coming forward to access services, which may have contributed slightly to the increase, but this certainly doesn’t account for it all.”

Research also shows that academics are struggling to cope with the high demand of students with mental health issues coming to them for support.

Researchers at the University of Derby, including Gareth, and King’s College London interviewed 52 academics across a range of disciplines to find out how they were responding to student mental health.

The report ‘Student Mental Health: The Role and Experience of Academics’ – in conjunction with charity Student Minds – revealed that academics felt responding to student mental health was now an “inevitable part of the academic role” and that they felt unprepared for the demands and inexperienced in offering effective guidance.

“This research throws light on how academics are a vital but often unrecognised part of the support available to students at universities,” says Rosie Tressler, CEO of Student Minds.

“It is inevitable that students will reach out to whoever they feel comfortable with, so to ensure that student support needs are met, institutions must support academics to have roles with clear boundaries and good relationships with their student services.”

So, what support is out there for struggling students and academics, and is it effective?

Jo Jones, Student Services Manager at the University of Derby, has worked at the institution for the past 20 years in Student Wellbeing and has a background in managing clinical mental health services in the NHS.

“The staff we employ in mental health roles are qualified, professionally registered and have extensive experience of working in health and social care,” she explains.

“This has facilitated effective joint working practices with external statutory mental health services, making best use of pre-existing relationships with students, skills and resources to achieve best outcomes for students.

“We work closely with academics and, because our Student Wellbeing Team engages in research and teaching, it enables these relationships to be built on mutual understanding.

“At Derby we work with a research, practice, teaching model that allows us to develop new evidence and interventions and constantly improve our practice and teaching.”

Despite the increase in mental health declarations, through research, developing new clinical interventions, restructuring the service and a successful outreach strategy, the Mental Health and Psychological Wellbeing Team at Derby has been able to reduce its waiting times for students accessing mental health support.

The team has implemented a comprehensive strategy focused on three key areas; conducting research to advance the sector and embed into service practice, addressing mental health as an institution-wide issue, and working with students on a three-tiered model – students at risk, vulnerable students and improving the wellbeing of all students.

Applicants and students more vulnerable to poor mental health are provided with proactive interventions from their first contact with the University. Those with complex needs benefit from a summer school, transition programme and support to transfer their health care.

Other support includes yoga classes, allotment projects to get students outdoors, as well as therapeutic interventions to treat exam anxiety, writer’s block, and difficulty with sleep and motivation.

Earlier this year, the University received a £150,000 share of a £1.5 million grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), awarded to 17 universities to improve support for the mental health and wellbeing of postgraduate research (PGR) students.

The funding will be used to create a national student wellbeing online resource, providing proactive multimedia resources that consider the whole PGR experience and support positive cultural change towards good mental health.

Derby’s Student Wellbeing Team has also received funding from the Vice-Chancellor’s Ideas Forum – set up to support staff to develop their ideas and enable a cultural change across the institution – to provide mental health awareness training to academic and support staff across the university.

The project aims to equip staff with the skills and strategies to respond to students appropriately, increase the wellbeing of staff, reduce the time that academics are spending responding to student mental health, and reduce the risk to staff, students and the institution.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of universities taking a proactive whole-institution approach to mental health,” says Jo.

“We need to think about every aspect of our students’ experience, from their relationship with staff in halls of residence, to their participation in the Union of Students’ societies to the quality of their learning experience. Everyone needs to understand their importance to student wellbeing.”

“We also need to support our academics, by working collaboratively to provide appropriate interventions for students which, in turn, will allow our academic staff focus their expertise on teaching and learning.”

In a bid to address the mental health issues across the sector, Universities UK has launched a new framework, Step Change, to support higher education senior teams to adopt mental health as a strategic imperative.

While the organisation recognises that “universities take student mental health very seriously,” it is calling for institutions to build on the support services and external links that already exist and take a “whole university” approach.

“Universities must have well-resourced and effective support services but that alone cannot solve this problem,” explains Gareth. “Many students who experience problems will not seek formal support and proactive work can prevent many more from becoming ill.

“We want students to take control of their own mental wellbeing too; ensuring they get fresh air, eat and sleep well, join societies and, when they find their studies tough, positively reflect on why they chose the subject in the first place – all of this can really make a difference.”

The issue of mental health across the higher education sector has now been recognised and can be addressed, says Gareth.

“We understand the challenges, and they are becoming more severe, but we believe our students are amazing and that this problem can be overcome,” he adds.

“This is not a crisis and our students are not snowflakes. These are educated, resilient individuals and, with the right support, they are capable of changing the world.”

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For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 591491, or @derbyunipress

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