For the vast majority of students now starting at university or returning to their studies, life attached to a campus is a positive experience.
But after years of being nurtured and guided by their parents, it can be a massive leap for some — not only are they now responsible for themselves, they must deal with new pressures, not least the rapidly changing landscape of relationships in the age of social media.
Most will look back on these university years as some of their best. But there are growing concerns that young students who struggle with depression and other mental illnesses are being left to flounder, with tragic results and unimaginable heartbreak for their families.
Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that suicides among university students have risen by 50 per cent over the past ten years, to 144 in 2016.
Universities are reporting a 50 per cent rise in demand for their mental health services, while the number of students who abandon degrees due to mental illness has more than doubled to almost 1,200 in just five years, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Meanwhile, a survey in April by The Student Room, the world’s largest online student community, revealed that on average one in four students in the UK said they suffered severe anxiety, with more than a third of those saying they had suicidal thoughts.
In the last academic year at Bristol University alone, five students took their own lives. Last week a coroner ruled on the death of one, Lara Nosiru, 23, who was found dead at the bottom of the Avon Gorge in January this year.
Lara, who was in her final year studying neuroscience, had suffered depression for four years and the night before she died, the ‘extremely bright’ student took an overdose.
Two months after Lara’s death, another Bristol student, Elsa Scaburri, 21, in her third year of a degree in modern languages, was found dead near her family home in Broad Chalke, Wiltshire. Unlike Lara, Elsa had no history of mental illness, but in the weeks before her death ‘things started to unravel very quickly,’ says her mother, Belinda, an archeological tour guide.
‘She’d always been an absolute joy, and was incredibly happy,’ recalls Belinda. ‘She’d spent her second year sharing a student house with four or five other gorgeous girls and was flying. But the thing with this is that it came on so fast.’
Last September, as part of her degree, Elsa went to Trieste in Italy. As well as studying, she worked on preparations for a film festival there, and ‘was loving it,’ says her mother. Belinda, with her former husband Paolo, Elsa’s father, and her brother, now 18, went out to visit her at Christmas and the whole family flew back together on Boxing Day.
‘Elsa had a week off and was very keen to meet up with her friends in London and Bristol and at home, but she wanted to get back to Italy because the festival was at the end of January. By the Sunday when she was due to leave, she was a bit wobbly, but she went back.’ However, once she returned to Italy, Elsa, who had been a top grade student, deteriorated rapidly. Deeply worried, Belinda flew out to Italy in mid-January to bring her home.
‘She was not happy, she went downhill. She was happy to see me but was slowly unravelling. She developed headshakes and twitches,’ Belinda told her daughter’s inquest. ‘She continued to go downhill, saying she was lazy and never did anything with her life. She started getting night terrors, too.’
Belinda took Elsa to Bristol to see the university GP where she was registered: ‘On the train on the way back I asked how the appointment went. Elsa said the GP told her she wasn’t suffering from depression or anxiety, she was having some sort of crisis.’
In a later statement for the inquest, the GP reported Elsa had said she felt like a fraud and couldn’t do the things everyone thought she could do. She’d been a bit tearful, but when asked if she had suicidal thoughts, Elsa had said no.
Convinced it was something more serious, Belinda paid for Elsa to see a private psychiatrist in London five days later, who diagnosed her with depression.
Medication stopped the head shakes and twitches but Elsa still thought she was going to be like this for the rest of her life, Belinda told the inquest.
Then, one night in late March, Belinda found Elsa was missing from her bed and called 999. Her body was found shortly afterwards in a barn.
Like every parent in the same situation, Belinda is plagued by unanswered questions. She has no idea what could have triggered Elsa’s decline.
‘We are all so emotionally wrecked by this we can’t really help each other,’ she says.
Theirs is a paralysing misery shared by many, including the families of Lara Nosiru and the three other students at Bristol University who took their lives last year: Miranda Williams, a 19-year-old philosophy student died in her first term, as did history student Daniel Green, 18, and law student Kim Long, 18. Another student, Sam Symons, 19, who was reading law at the University of the West of England in Bristol, died in April.
‘With this growing epidemic this whole issue has to be taken more seriously,’ says Belinda. ‘January to March was the time it took for Elsa to fall apart.
‘I think GPs should ask students for permission to talk to other people so they can ask parents what they think.’
Communication is a key issue, whether it’s between GPs and parents, or the university and GPs, as the tragic story of Hannah Webster highlights.
Last week, an inquest into the death of the 20-year-old, a banking and finance student at Essex University, heard poor communications between NHS services in Essex and Yorkshire, where she grew up, and the university itself, meant information about Hannah’s depression was not communicated.
While information on her history held by the university had been requested by the health services, it wasn’t passed on because of ‘data protection’.
Hannah was found dead near some allotments in Colchester in May this year.
‘In my opinion [the university] failed her,’ her mother, Deborah Webster, from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, said after the inquest. ‘They had a duty of care. She was beautiful and intelligent. All she ever wanted to do was go to university. She wanted to be a mentor for new students. We love and miss her.’
The NHS advises students to register with a GP near their university or college so they can ‘access health services quickly . . . this is especially important if you have an ongoing health condition, particularly one that needs medication’.
In many cases of mental breakdown at university, there is a history of depression, but as in Hannah’s case the information is not shared, says Ruth Caleb, an expert on student mental health from Brunel University. ‘We need more investment in services and better communication and collaboration with the NHS so the NHS sees students as special cases, and they bring a record of care with them from home,’ says Dr Caleb.
She helped write the Step Change report, circulated last month to university vice-chancellors, in which student mental health was made imperative for the first time.
‘The current situation is extremely sad,’ says Dr Caleb. ‘We know mental health is deteriorating across society and students have become far more anxious. They are worried about getting a good enough degree, the debt they are carrying, getting a job, and the pressure from social media of always being at the top of their game.
‘In my experience we frequently ask permission to talk to other people, and I can’t remember a student saying they weren’t happy for me to ask other people about helping them, but sometimes the question isn’t asked when it should be and parents are often the last people a student wants to know that they aren’t coping.’
The pressing question is what lies behind the rise in suicides and mental illness in students.
Clearly there is no simple answer. Nick Hillman, director of the think-tank the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), believes their relative youth may be a factor: he points out that until 1970 the legal age of adulthood was 21, not 18.
‘I’m not suggesting we go back to that, but we have to remember that 16 to 25 is the peak age range for onset of mental illness. These people are very young and we are asking them to make a huge transition by suddenly living away from home.’
He says the problem may be compounded by unrealistic expectations. A recent HEPI survey revealed two-thirds of prospective undergraduates wrongly believed they would get more rather than less contact time with teachers than they had at school: they also had little realisation of how much they’d have to work alone.
‘There is a decline in coping skills, an increasing sense of isolation, the stressful input of social media and now a growing pessimism about job prospects,’ says Raj Persaud, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
‘One in five school-age children have psychological illness, so these are people who are not in the best mental health when they arrive at university.’ For education expert Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University and author of The Positive And Mindful University, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, this is a major problem.
‘We are relentlessly squandering human potential and lives because we refuse to take seriously the knowledge about how to build resilience and coping strategies,’ he told Good Health.
‘We infantilise and cocoon them, then give them a ten-week summer holiday after A-levels, then send them over the top, like ill-prepared First World War troops. We expect them to know what to eat, when to go to bed, how to cope with money and adversity. It is a willful disregard of the welfare of our young people. Most of them cope, but some don’t. We need to prepare students better and be more emotionally intelligent in helping our young people through this.’
Last week, Bristol University announced it has invested £1 million in 28 full-time ‘well-being’ advisers who will be embedded across faculties and departments.
Its head of student services, Mark Ames, said the issue is being taken very seriously with further work being undertaken at a national level across all universities to improve mental health services with more specialist staff and better communication.
Anthony Seldon is not convinced. ‘Mental illness is like a waterfall,’ he says. ‘It’s all very well Bristol spending a million pounds on 28 mental health advisers, but if they’re working at the bottom of the waterfall when people have already fallen down it, that isn’t good enough. We need to stop them getting to that point.’
A spokesman for Universities UK, which commissioned the Step Change report, said: ‘There are now two million students in the university sector alone. We need an approach that joins up schools, colleges, universities and routes to employment, and effective links between university mental health services and the NHS, as well as NHS provision for the particular needs and vulnerabilities of these significant populations.’
Step Change pointed to an initiative at York University where, in 2016, five students took their lives — shockingly, half of the ambulances called to the university that year were for self-harm or suicide attempts. York has now invested £500,000 to increase the number of mental health support staff and improve communication between university and NHS authorities.
For those affected, there’s no doubt that the help currently available can be woefully inadequate.
Although leaflets advertising counselling services litter faculty corridors, many services are not available at weekends when students may feel most vulnerable.
Lawrence Linnell, 27, now doing a masters degree in music therapy at Goldsmiths College, London, recalls how he found himself standing on a roof when he was 14 with no inkling of how he got there. The episode was a prelude to bouts of depression which culminated in a breakdown when his girlfriend died in a car crash in 2012.
At that time he was at a different university and he was recommend to its counselling service. But he says: ‘All they wanted to know was whether I was suicidal.
‘When I said no, I was put to the back of the queue and told there would be a wait of up to three months. I was seen six or seven weeks later and because I wasn’t suicidal I was referred to a helpline. I feel very lucky that I have ended up doing something I love, but I think there’s a lot of uncertainty for young people about how they can be useful in the world.’
A 19-year-old second year maths student at Cambridge University told us he thinks only a small minority of the 240 people doing his course in his year are happy.
‘People are anxious and stressed. There is a lot of work and a lot of stuff to write up,’ he says. He has suffered a variety of problems diagnosed as depression and anxiety. ‘There is support but it doesn’t always work and is not very well-organised,’ he explains, speaking on condition of anonymity.
‘I have found other ways of dealing with it mainly through clubs and societies, but there’s no question that it helps to have someone to talk to who understands the course you’re doing. I was allocated a fourth-year student to help with my work, but he had to give up because he was on medication and needed help himself.’