Great Britain wakes up to the condition of mental health of the students

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LONDON: The former business student Greg used to resort to drinking and taking drugs to fall asleep – a common story in British universities struggling to adapt to growing concerns about students' mental health problems.

"I was super, very depressed," said Greg, aged 26, at AFP.

About half of the 37,500 students interviewed by The Insight Network, a therapy provider, used drugs and alcohol "as a means of coping with the difficulties of their lives".

One in five reported suffering from mental health problems, mostly depression and anxiety, according to a survey conducted at 140 British universities.

In Greg's case, it was a combination of factors involved, including the disappointment of not enjoying his journey and having more time available.

The end of a five-year report, in addition to the deaths of his grandparents, however, made things even worse, he said, asking not to be identified by his full name.

Dominique Thompson, a doctor who treated students for 20 years, said their anxiety could be debilitating and "it's not about feeling a little stressed about exams."

"They wouldn't be able to go out with friends, go to their classes, study, read … they stop socializing, leave their room," he said.

And students with depression sometimes develop "suicidal thoughts," he warned.

In the last decade, the percentage of British students who have reported mental disorders has "significantly increased", according to a study.

Since 0.4% in 2008, last year the percentage rose to 3.1%, the study of about 2.3 million students published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency indicated.

However, "we do not know how much of this increase is due to the greater awareness of mental health conditions, the willingness of students to report such conditions or a real increase in the prevalence of mental health conditions", said the agency in comments written to AFP.

"ALL A COMPETITION"

Launched in action, the government announced in March the creation of a new working group "to support students in addressing the challenges" of starting higher education.

"Our universities are world leaders in so many areas and I want them to be the best for mental health support," the education secretary, Damian Hinds, said at the time.

Students often impose "extremely high, often unrealistic" expectations about themselves and have difficulty coping with failure, said Andrew Hill, director of a wellness research group at York St John University.

There is also anxiety associated with "seeing mistakes in your work, or that others will see mistakes you have made," he told AFP.

Social media, with its visibility and reach, have also contributed to pressure on young people, Thompson said.

"Baking cakes is now a competition, putting on makeup is a competition, sewing, painting, sculpture …

"You've named almost everything that could have been fun and relaxing, now it's become a competition," he said.

"They are … 24 hours a day under the microscope thanks to their social media".

The doctor also said that the increase in students' mental disorders was an international phenomenon.

He said the students also fought the feeling that "it was no longer enough" to have a degree because they were so common.

Another factor may be the "helicopter parents", who micro-routine run the full activity activities of their children while they are still in school, leaving them in trouble once they have to manage alone, he said.

"VERY FRUSTRATING"

Experts say universities need to implement new strategies to help students in need.

Uncompetitive activities "just for fun" should be introduced, as well as teaching students how to deal with failure, Thompson said.

For his part, Hill urged tutors to receive "basic mental literacy training" to "recognize the signs and symptoms" of potential disorders.

Greg remembers asking for help when he was a 20-year-old student at one of the best universities in London in 2013, but said the process took "so long" that he gave up.

"They recommended books, numbers to call and asked if I wanted a chat," he recalled.

"In the end they came back to me between eight and ten weeks after contacting them, and it was very frustrating."

MORE PROACTIVE

Some universities have recently adopted new approaches.

"Like many universities, we tended to focus on where they needed additional support," said Mark Ames, Head of Student Services at Bristol University.

Shocked by the suicide of nine of his students since 2016, the institution has set up two services, consisting of about 60 people, which "focus on supporting student welfare", such as encouraging them to sleep more.

He is also reviewing the frequency with which he tests students and his exam programs to "make sure they don't all cluster together".

However, it is recently on the headlines after the parents of one of the nine – Natasha Abrahart, 20, a physics student who was found hanged last year – accused the university of not having done enough.

Meanwhile, the University of Birmingham has declared at the AFP to "actively work" on the development of a "single strategic framework", replacing its case-by-case approach.

Greg said that the approach to mental health in many universities has radically changed from his experience.

After a "break" of five years, he returned to the university to study geology.

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