We must work together to tackle student mental health

Blog by Ruth Spellman

Education is a lifeboat to a better future and gaining knowledge can be a positive force for tackling mental health issues, however, over the course of the last decade, there has been an increase in the number of students suffering from mental health difficulties across the whole of tertiary education. These statistics are deeply concerning. 

Shocking statistics 

A staggering 95% of Higher Education providers have reported an increase in demand for counselling services, and between 2009/10 and 2014/15, there was a 210% increase of students who experienced mental health difficulties and dropped out of university.

It is easy to forget that behind these shocking statistics are thousands of people who suffer on a daily basis, who are not able to fulfil their potential. This, in many cases, sets them on a path from which it is hard to escape. 

Last week, alongside representatives from the NUS, the Association of Colleges and Universities, I attended the All Party Parliamentary Group on Students to address student mental health to discuss the problem and how we can work together to tackle these challenges. 

If we are truly to help those suffering from mental health difficulties in education, it is vital we not only reach the young people who are suffering but also the adults who have fallen out of the system already. 

Cross-sector learning

There needs to be much closer working across the education sector and in turn closer working between the education and health sectors to improve the harrowing mental health statistics and to help the people behind them. 

We understand there are a lot of differences between adult education and other forms of education. But by working together and sharing research on the impact of education on mental health there may be cross-sector learning to be had from that.

A study for the Institutes for Adult Learning (conducted by the Institute for Employment Research at University of Warwick) concluded that adult education not only helps keep individuals well and supports longer and productive lives, it helps meet major challenges including mental health. 

A recent survey we conducted of 4000 of WEA students, for our impact report, found that 82% of students with mental health issues reported improvements in their condition after taking a course (74% reduced stress and 71% managed stress better).

We need to have open and honest conversations about the reasons why we are seeing improvements in those with mental health conditions in adult education. Is it because adult education and community-based learning often doesn’t take place in a classroom but in community settings which are accessible, informal, and familiar? Is it to do with the lack of pressure?  

Never too late to tackle challenges 

We must ask ourselves if the education system is fit for purpose for the 21st century and does it truly represent lifelong learning. 

We need to ensure we’re not losing generations of talent and potential to mental health issues, but we also need to support those who may feel they have already become lost. There is no such thing as too early, or too late to begin tackling these challenges, but understanding and cooperation is the only way we will succeed. If we’re to see any progress in helping those with mental health problems, we need to see systemic and societal change.