University: The best years of your life?

University is presented to young people as “the best years of your life”, and many students have a great time, as well as success in their studies - but for some it can be stressful, lonely and unhappy.

More students are coming forward with mental health conditions - 15,395 in 2015, almost five times the number in 2006/07 – and 94 per cent of higher education providers report an increase in demand for counselling. But less than a third of universities have an explicit mental health and wellbeing strategy.

Almost 50% of young people now go to university, so we would expect to see a greater number of students affected by mental ill health. However, there are things about the student experience that can contribute to poor mental health.

Students go through multiple transitions: leaving home for the first time, becoming financially independent, establishing a new circle of friends, working out how to live and study without the routines of home and school. These are all part of what makes university life exciting, but they can also be challenging. And the expectation that you will have “the best years of your life” can add to unhappiness if the reality does not live up to the promise.

The Government has recognised the need for better mental health care in schools, and there are plans to increase access for school pupils to mental health specialists and raise mental health skills among teachers. Improving support at university and in further education should be its next mental health priority. We need more training and awareness for all staff, continuity of care so that students can continue to receive treatment as they move between home and university, and more robust assessment of how universities promote the health and wellbeing of students. If universities know they will be assessed on mental health and wellbeing, that’s sure to mean they pay this more attention. And it’s what students have told me they want.

Britain’s universities are renowned across the world for the quality of the academic education they provide; with better mental health care they can provide an education for life.