A fifth of students in higher education consider themselves to have a mental health problem, while 13% have suicidal thoughts, research has found.

The survey by the National Union of Students (NUS) also found that 92% of respondents said they had had feeling of mental distress, such as feeling down, stressed and demotivated. On average, respondents who experience feelings of mental distress experience them once a month or more (74%), and almost one third suffered mental distress every week.

The main causes of this were found to be coursework (65% of respondents), exams and study (54%). However, financial difficulties were a factor for 47%, reflecting the continuing tough economic climate.

Keeping quiet about problems
But, despite the prevalence of mental distress, only 15% had told a doctor or GP and just 10% had gone to counselling services at the place they study.

NUS Disabled Students' officer, Hannah Paterson, said: “These stats are confirming what I have been hearing on campuses for some time. My primary concern is the fact that over a quarter of those surveyed did not tell anyone about their problems with a mere 1 in 10 using care provided by their institution.

“We are currently meeting with mental health organisations in a bid to bring all stakeholders together to examine the standard of mental health care in UK universities and hope to make an announcement in the coming weeks on the shape this will take.”

Liz Felton, chief executive of mental health charity Together UK, said: “It is clear from the research that mental health is something that needs to be addressed on UK campuses. We hope to be involved in the process with NUS, by making a standard of care for mental health a priority in UK education.”

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, added: “This new research demonstrates the scale of mental health problems among students. We are particularly concerned that more than 1 in 10 students surveyed had experienced suicidal thoughts during the time they’ve spent at their current place of study. Despite the high prevalence of mental health problems and stress among students, many people are not seeking help, perhaps because of the stigma that can surround mental health problems.

“Higher education institutions need to ensure not just that services are in place to support mental wellbeing, but that they proactively create a culture of openness where students feel able to talk about their mental health and are aware of the support that’s available. Opening up to friends and family can help those feeling stressed or anxious, but anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or consistently feeling down may have an enduring mental health problem, so it’s best they visit their GP. Nobody should suffer alone.”