Too much pressure? Why student mental health has never mattered more

Demand for student counselling services at the University of Edinburgh has increased by 270% in the past eight years, so we asked our Director of Student Wellbeing, Andy Shanks, to tell us more about what is behind the rise and what the University is doing to help our students’ wellbeing, especially during Covid-19.

Andy Shanks wellbeing centre
Andy Shanks

Everyone is talking about mental health. Sports stars, political leaders, TV celebrities, musicians. But it’s also a conversation that is increasingly important for the university sector to be a part of. Research has shown that the majority of mental health conditions are likely to emerge by age 24*, increasing the likelihood of students developing or managing a mental illness during university. In fact, the University Student Mental Health Survey 2018, reported that one in five students had a current mental health diagnosis. Now, the global Covid-19 pandemic is adding new pressures.

Growing demand

To respond to growing concerns about student mental health, the University of Edinburgh appointed its first Director of Student Wellbeing, Andy Shanks, in 2017. Among his responsibilities for student support services, student mental health and addressing gender-based violence on campus, the former mental health social worker has presided over the launch of a new student health and wellbeing centre, which opened this year in Bristo Square - a facility that is designed to address the growing demand for support.

“We’re encouraging people to come forward and tell us as early as possible when they’re struggling with their mental health, but this means that the demand on our services is increasing. Demand on student counselling services has gone up 270% in the last 8 years. We have also had a 300% increase in students coming forward to tell us they have mental health conditions over the last 10 years. Our student disability service manages that by putting support in place for students who need help with studying because of a mental health condition,” Andy says.

A culture of competition

Despite these increases in demand, Andy insists that this doesn’t point to a “crisis in student mental health”, but suggests instead that the cause is attributable to a range of social, economic and cultural factors, including insufficient funding for mental health services, the recent media focus on mental health, and also the environment in which many young people now grow up in.

“We know young people are now growing up in a culture of competition. There’s so much more pressure to do well to get into university. Before the 1990s, I think two or three in ten people in Britain came to university but now half of young people in Britain go University - four out of ten in Scotland. So that’s a big change.

“Academics Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill** have identified that perfectionism as a trait has been increasing over time, and we see a lot of students come to us with this as a personality trait. That is significant because perfectionism is one of the traits, according to research, that can be a factor in mental health conditions, such as, eating disorders, anxiety and depression. We see more and more students who are afraid of failing. They come to us having never failed because they are under so much pressure to do well. Sometimes that means they don’t always know how to recover if things don’t go so well,” says Andy.

The uncertainty of change

Starting university can also be a trigger for poor mental health, which is why mental health campaigners are calling for universities to make student wellbeing a priority. Andy explains why this time can be hard for young people:

“We know that transitioning to university is difficult. Moving away from home, your friends and your support system to a new city or country is difficult. Dominique Thomson, who used to work at Bristol University and now advises the government on student mental health talks a lot about how when you are 18, you experience things more intensely, just because of the way your brain is working. So, from a biological perspective there’s a lot going on as well.

“It can be an amazing time and it probably will be for most people but there’s pressure to enjoy yourself and meet your friends for life. We see more and more young people here who are feeling isolated and lonely, even though they have got a lot of people around them.”

Many young people are going through a massive change in their identity. For lots of young people who are exploring their sexuality, this is the time when they might start feeling able to talk.

Andy Shanks
Director of Student Wellbeing

It can also be a time when identity issues surface, so Andy is keen to ensure that his team is equipped to view mental health through the different lenses of gender, sexuality, or ethnic and cultural identities.

“Many young people are going through a massive change in their identity. For lots of young people who are exploring their sexuality, this is the time when they might start feeling able to talk.

“Sometimes identity can be an issue for students from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. I think we’re a very white city and we’re not good at talking about race, and difference. But within our services, we’re looking at sexuality, gender, class, and race and ethnicity, to make sure we give students the right support.”

Covid-19 challenges

This year’s new intake of students has, of course, has also been burdened by the additional pressures brought by Covid-19: transitioning to hybrid learning (in-person and online); self-isolation; job losses; health or family worries and that pervading sense of uncertainty that the pandemic brings. Covid-19 has created challenges for the staff supporting students too, prompting a swift turnaround to online delivery of services, as well as new and increasing demands that this health and economic crisis has generated.

“Moving lots of our teaching online at the end of March was a huge challenge for the University. Some students are happy to have all their support and study online. Other students don’t have decent wi-fi or a laptop or a safe space either to study or to talk about how they are feeling from a personal perspective. So, there’s a lot of work going on to make sure we can reach out to those students financially and to ensure they have the appropriate kit.

“For students self-isolating, our Residence Life (community support) team in our accommodation is making sure practical things like wi-fi, food, and cleaning are being addressed. Doing things on such a big scale is a bit of a challenge but we’ve been doing our best to make sure every single student is reached out to and has support.

“Not all our students live in University accommodation, so we’ve got a new team set up to support students living in rented accommodation in the city. We’ve got people checking in on them, so if we’re worried about a student, we can fast track them into our counselling and our health and wellbeing processes as early as possible.

The right way

“Some of our students are studying in another country or in another part of the UK, and this can be a challenge for developing that sense of belonging, which is important for a positive student experience. Recently we had an online student based overseas who was struggling, so we got in touch with the embassy to make sure that student was well supported overnight.

“We’re doing more to ensure students all over the world, who are studying with us at university, are linked in with mental health services. We also do a lot of work with our local mental health team here in South East Edinburgh to support students in most need and in the right way.

“The vast majority of students don’t need counselling, but they do need a chance to talk and we’ve made our listening service operational 24 hours a day. Our listening service will then refer students who are really struggling to our counselling service or our disability service. We can do that very quickly.”

Health and wellbeing centre
The new health and wellbeing centre

A new centre

While supporting students throughout Covid, the University also launched its new health and wellbeing centre, which brings together student support services under one roof for the first time, increasing room capacity by a third. The new fully accessible building located opposite the McEwan Hall on Bristo Square, houses counselling, disability services and the NHS health practice, which serves 25,000 patients. It provides quiet spaces for reflection and conversation, and meeting rooms for group work and psychoeducation sessions around topics, including impostor syndrome, time management or stress – something that there had been limited space for previously. Once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted there are plans for pop-up mindfulness, yoga or tai-chi sessions.

“The plans for this centre were started about three years ago and we were always really excited about being able to consolidate all our services and bring them together in an integrated way here,” says Andy.

 “I think it’s a great statement to students and staff, and the public, that the University of Edinburgh is absolutely committed to mental health and wellbeing. It is a symbol of the University’s commitment to student mental health and wellbeing.”

Related links

Information on supporting students at Edinburgh 

Student health and wellbeing

The wellbeing team on Twitter


*The Mental Health Foundation

**American Psychological Association report