As World Mental Health Day sets its focus on young people and mental health in a changing world, a record number of UK students are battling anxiety and depression. So why is student mental health in crisis and what can we do about it?
Half a million first year students are buckling down to their degrees in earnest. With the excitement of freshers’ week behind them, this period is often the most stressful for students as the reality of three challenging years away from their familiar support network sinks in.
MPs, university leaders and mental health charities have all issued stark warnings about the crisis in student mental health. They follow an alarming number of suicides in the last few years and a five-fold increase in students reporting mental health issues over the last decade .
This troubling picture is something that Thrive is all too familiar with. It’s why, two years ago, we began developing Unihealth, the UK’s first social media messaging programme enabling universities to support student wellbeing.
Our initial research for the programme bears out today’s warnings. Of more than 1,000 students we surveyed, nearly a fifth had suicidal feelings, nearly half felt depressed and 82% had suffered stress and anxiety. Yet three-quarters didn’t seek help because they don’t know where to find it, were too embarrassed or thought it was a waste of time.
The reasons for the crisis are complex. The stress of being away from home, living with strangers in an unfamiliar town and getting to grips with demanding new work should not be underestimated, especially for a teenager leaving friends and family for the first time.
Then there’s the mounting financial burden on students and the overwhelming expectation to succeed when the investment at stake is £50,000 or more.
Social media has perhaps been most heavily under the spotlight , and rightly so. As well as trolling and cyber-bullying , there is the more insidious, and unprecedented, pressure to keep up with the Insta-perfect lives of peers, even if those lives are heavily-filtered.
But research has also found that social media can be a force for psychological good, particularly for promoting feels of connectedness.
Researchers at an Australian university found that Facebook users who reported higher levels of online connectedness also had lower levels of depression and anxiety and higher rates of wellbeing.
It concluded that Facebook can be an alternative way to engage and connect with others, and that it can facilitate better mental health and wellbeing, particularly for those who find it difficult to connect face-to-face.
A 2015 study by the University of Missouri found that people who use Facebook primarily to connect with others, rather than compare lives, do not experience negative effects and that the platform can have positive effects on wellbeing.
Unihealth connects to students where we know they spend their time, using Facebook Messenger to send evidence-based wellbeing messages, timed to walk the journey with them through their first year as they transition to university life.
The programme is personalised to signpost existing support provisions within university so students know exactly where to get help should they need to.
Among students surveyed following the pilot programme, 90% said it helped them know where to get help and 80% said they felt less embarrassed about seeking it.
But the programme offers far more than signposting and breaking down stigma. The pilot survey also found that Unihealth made 70% of students feel more connected with their university. Not surprisingly, a sense of belonging has been linked to higher retention, lower drop out rates and better wellbeing.
Apps can be impersonal and risk being deleted as phones get full, but, through programmes like Unihealth, social media can provide a hammock of support when it’s most needed – and where it’s most likely to create that all-important sense of connection.