In a concerning trend, the prevalence of reported mental health issues among university students in the United Kingdom has nearly tripled in recent years, according to a new analysis.
The research by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO) reveals a significant increase in mental health difficulties among undergraduates.
Between the academic years 2016/17 and 2022/23, the percentage of undergraduate students who reported experiencing mental health challenges surged from 6% to 16%, meaning that one in six undergraduates now faces mental health issues.
Notably, female students are more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to report poor mental health, with 12% of female and 5% of male students affected.
The analysis also uncovered that a significant portion of this increase occurred in the last 12 months, coinciding with the intensification of the cost-of-living crisis.
Poor mental health has emerged as the most common reason for students considering dropping out of university, with the proportion citing financial distress as the primary reason rising from 3.5% to 8% between 2022 and 2023.
While the recent surge can be partially attributed to external factors like inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic, the overall upward trend in mental health problems predates these events, suggesting that other underlying factors contribute to the issue.
The study, which drew data from 82,682 full-time UK undergraduates over seven years, also revealed disparities among different demographic groups.
Non-binary respondents reported the highest levels of mental health challenges, with 42% affected, while 30% of trans individuals also faced difficulties.
Among LGBTQ groups, bisexual individuals had the highest average levels of mental health issues (28%), while gay men had the lowest (14%), though still higher than straight individuals (7%).
Navigating Student Mental Health Disparities and Financial Struggles
White students (12%), on average, reported worse mental health than their peers from other ethnicities, while students with a “mixed” ethnicity (12%) experienced similar levels of mental health difficulties. Attendees of state schools (15%) had worse mental health on average than private school students (11%).
Students primarily relying on maintenance loans, grants, or paid work for financial support were more likely to experience mental health challenges than those on scholarships or with family support.
Professor Michael Sanders, author of the study and professor of public policy at the Policy Institute, emphasized the need for proactive measures to prevent mental health difficulties and ensure that support services are adequately resourced to assist students in need.
Dr. Omar Khan, CEO of TASO, noted that while the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis exacerbated mental health challenges among students, the upward trend is not new.
Efforts are ongoing to understand effective strategies for improving mental health outcomes for all students in higher education.
A related development, a report from the NHS Race and Health Observatory highlights the need for increased mental health support for people from Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities in England, where suicide rates are estimated to be up to seven times higher than in other communities.