Mental Health Awareness Week 2018: Addressing mental health in higher education

Anne Balls

According to a survey carried out by NUS, 78% of students believe they have experienced problems with their mental health in higher education, in the past year. Despite the pandemic of mental health problems among young people, many university students don’t get the support they need. This hinders their chance of making the most of their university experience and student life. Sadly, untreated mental health problems can also have a serious impact on other aspects of students’ health.

Sleeping a wink

Sleep and mental health are strongly related. Sleep problems are particularly common in people who suffer from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD (Harvard Health, 2009). Insomnia and other sleep disorders can lead to tiredness, difficulty coping with daily life and low self-esteem. These issues can, in turn, exacerbate feelings of worry and stress, creating a vicious circle (Mind, 2016). Studies show that daytime sleepiness, sleep deprivation, and irregular sleep schedules are highly prevalent among college students. 50% report daytime sleepiness and 70% suffer with insufficient sleep. Consequences of sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness include compromised learning, lower grade point averages and increased risk of academic failure (Hershner and Chervin 2014).

Alcohol misuse and abuse

MFH notes that excessive drinking can either result from, cause, or worsen any existing mental health problems. A survey carried out among undergraduates from seven universities across England using the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), identified 40% of students as hazardous drinkers, 11% as harmful drinkers and 10% as people with probable alcohol dependence (Heather et al., 2011). In Britain, people who suffer from anxiety or depression are twice as likely to be heavy or problem drinkers (Drinkaware, 2016). Regular drinking changes the chemistry of the brain and depletes levels of serotonin, which is a natural mood stabilizer. This may lead to higher alcohol use to medicate depression and becoming more depressed as a result. Heavy drinking can also affect social relationships which in turn can contribute to depression (MHF, 2018).

Dropping out of university

Unfortunately poor mental health causes many students to drop out of university. A 2016 survey carried out by Unite revealed that 62% of students with mental health conditions have considered dropping out, as opposed to 35% without any mental health conditions. According to HESA, in 2014-15 1,180 students who experienced mental health problems left university early.


Facing a multitude of pressures at university, outside of a familiar support network, can trigger mental health conditions or make existing ones worse. Tragically, depression causes many young people to contemplate or commit suicide. Figures released by ONS show that student suicides are increasing. The number of suicides among full-time students rose from 75 in 2007 to 130 in 2014 (ONS 2012, ONS 2016). It is estimated that around 90% of people who attempt or die by suicide suffer from a mental health condition such as depression (NHS Choices, 2015).

Action on mental health in higher education

These are only some of the consequences that students with untreated mental health conditions may be facing, but the list goes on. It is essential that universities take action to help students prevent these problems from developing in the beginning, and make sure students can get support if they do find themselves suffering.

Our Unihealth programme was designed to support students through their transition to university by providing them with practical tools to promote their wellbeing and making them aware of all the support available.  Students from our pilot programme told us they’ve found this very useful.

  • 81% said it helped them feel more supported at university
  • 88% said that it helped them by giving them useful tips and coping strategies
  • 90% said it helped them know where to get help or advice at university

To read the full results from our pilot programme, download our report.

We are proud that Unihealth is starting to make a difference to university students. We believe that all HE institutions should make wellbeing and mental health in higher education an absolute priority.