Preparing students to handle the mental health challenges of FE and HE

Written by: Clare Stafford | Published:
Mental health risks: Increasing numbers of university students are dropping out of their courses due to mental health issues (Image: Adobe Stock)

When students make the step-up to further or higher education they can face a range of challenges to their mental health. Clare Stafford looks at how schools can prepare their students to help them cope with these pressures.

Transitions between school, further education college and university can put pressure on students’ mental health, according to a report published by Centre for Mental Health and the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust (CWMT).

The report, Finding our own way (January 2019), explores the impact of transitions into and between further education and university on students’ mental health and looks at ways these can be improved. It finds that going to further education college or university involves several periods of transition, all of which can affect a young person’s mental health.

Andrew Reeves, director of colleges and universities for CWMT, explained: “The transition to university or college can create a perfect storm in the life of a young person, with its combination of a new level of academic pressure, the first move away from family and home, and the challenge of making new friends. For those who are already vulnerable to mental health problems, it can be a particularly dangerous time.

“On a positive note, progress has been made to improve transitions by organisations in the sector, backed up by government policy, and we are already working with key partners to implement the report’s recommendations to help support student mental health and wellbeing.”

Student mental health

Recent research into student mental health has indicated that students are increasingly experiencing mental health difficulties that impact their studies, wellbeing and lives. While there is a lack of robust research into student mental health, the evidence that does exist is compelling.

For example, the Association of Colleges (2017) found that 85 per cent of 105 further education colleges in England reported increased mental health problems in the past three years.

As well as reporting issues with self-harm, eating disorders, attempted suicide and suicidal ideation, all the colleges reported that they had students with depression and 99 per cent reported students with severe anxiety. In 2015, there were 134 suicides among full-time students aged 18 years and above in England and Wales, a 79 per cent increase over the period 2007 to 2015.

Research has also suggested that certain periods of university are associated with poorer mental health. Macaskill’s study (2012) measured the mental health of 1,197 students across four periods of university. She found that the overall incidence of mental health conditions was 17.3 per cent but that it peaked at 23.1 per cent at the mid-second year point.

Dropping out

Evidence suggests that an increasing number of students are seeking support from counselling and mental health services while at college or university. However, there are continuing barriers to accessing support, including stigma, the availability and suitability of services and staff knowledge and understanding, resulting in students not always getting the help they need.

For some students, the pressure leads to their dropping out of university – in 2014/15, 1,180 experiencing mental health problems dropped out, an increase of 210 per cent on 2009/10 (Guardian, 2017).

It should be noted, however, that this increase may be partly explained by students being more likely to identify that they dropped out on account of mental health problems now that it has become a less taboo subject.

Student Freya Hillyer dropped out of university at the end of her first year and told us: “The academic side is a huge challenge as it’s so different from A levels. I didn’t do well as I let bad grades and leaving work to the last minute get on top of me, which caused panic attacks and anxiety. This is a huge contributor to poor mental health but not the only one. A major issue for me and many people I know was making new friends. We were told that university would be easy and making friends would come naturally. When this doesn’t happen, it is easy to see how anxiety and depression develop.”

Key risks

The research supports Freya’s experience in recognising there are some key risk factors that appear to impact student mental health and wellbeing. These include:

  • The academic demands of the course alongside the less structured, self-directed style of further and higher education learning.
  • Anxiety over future career opportunities and that having a degree might not be enough.
  • Feeling pressured or failing to fit into the typical university lifestyle and making meaningful friendships, leaving students feeling lonely, excluded and distressed.
  • Transitioning from living at home to living in shared accommodation, with the challenges of living with strangers and managing conflicts, while learning to live independently.
  • The financial pressures and for some the need to work alongside their studies and worries over mounting debt.

There are particular groups of students who are likely to be more susceptible to the impact of these factors and to develop poor mental health while studying. These include:

  • Students with existing mental health difficulties, who as well as facing the challenges of transitioning to college or university also experience the transition from child and adolescent mental heath services to adult mental health services. This may result either in loss or certainly disruption of their care.
  • Students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who experience heightened financial challenges as they try to juggle studies with working outside university and struggle to pay their bills.
  • LGBT+ students, for whom stigma, bullying and harassment negatively impact their mental health, with an increased risk of suicide.
  • Students transitioning into second year, where moving into flat shares could cause distress because of tensions caused by living with others and having less structured and more intense studies.

How can schools help?

As well as conducting quantitative research for the report, the Centre for Mental Health conducted qualitative research, holding focus groups, interviews and online surveys with students and staff at schools, sixth form colleges and further education colleges.

The young people themselves thought that the single most important thing needed for a successful transition was “positivity”, “an open mind”, or a “good mindset”. Therefore, good mental health and wellbeing were seen as crucial to enable the student to be happy, learn and thrive in a new place.

In fact, while they ranked making friends as the most important factor in settling in, they placed self-esteem, confidence, emotional support and good mental health above more practical concerns, such as finances and accommodation.

When making transitions, it is important that young people have the space to make their own decisions, change their minds and make mistakes. The resilience to cope with those set-backs, teachers believed, should be developed throughout students’ time at school by “allowing them to fail”. One said: “Sometimes our students experience failure ... and we let them realise that failure is normal.”

If students do not have an appreciation that it is okay to change their mind, it can lead to great emotional turmoil and distress.

Some staff also felt that it was crucial to work with the student directly, rather than involving the student’s parents, again to build up the young person’s resilience. For example, when a student is struggling, the teachers will work directly with them to build a plan to fix it. Calling or involving the student’s parents would not be the first port of call, unless something very serious had happened.

Teachers and students both highlighted that a school’s usual approach to applying to university focuses on league tables, careers advice and other academic concerns. A better approach might be to encourage students to think in terms of which university might have the best support package for them. Some teachers thought students should be encouraged to think in these terms from the beginning of their search, for example by asking about pastoral or special needs support when attending open days.

For students from special schools, some further education colleges offer “extended transitions”, which aim to give the students a feel for the college and whether they are likely to feel comfortable there. Regular communication between the special school teacher and further education college staff is particularly important, sharing experience of working with the student and information such as the student’s behaviour management plan or safeguarding file, if they have one.

Ian MacDonald, consultant trainer for schools and families at CWMT, has many years’ experience of working with vulnerable young people. He explained: “We sometimes forget that at this particular transition, an increasing desire for independence can make it a more complex and anxiety-inducing time for young people.”

He also offered the following tips:

  • Keep the needs and wants of young people at the centre of all transition activities.
  • Remain positive about the new experience and changes which are approaching.
  • Support them to identify and practise healthy ways of coping when things do feel tough – and acknowledge that it is okay for things to feel tough sometimes.
  • Help them identify potential social opportunities to be involved in, matched to their interest and needs.
  • Ask potential colleges or universities if students who have accessed support can share their experiences – this helps normalise the process of seeking support when needed.


  • Clare Stafford is the CEO of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust. Visit www.cwmt.org.uk

Further information & resources

  • Finding our own way, Centre for Mental Health & Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, January 2019: http://bit.ly/2LL9BvP
  • Survey on students with mental health conditions in further education, Association of Colleges, January 2017: http://bit.ly/2HuJWC6
  • Number of university dropouts due to mental health problems trebles, Marsh/Guardian, May 2017: http://bit.ly/2WM7Pvl
  • The mental health of university students in the United Kingdom, Macaskill, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, November 2012: http://bit.ly/30ohdaF


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