Financial stresses and the impact on wellbeing of students

Student wellbeing is being impacted by financial stress – how can we stop this issue becoming progressively worse?
9 September 2016

This week, hundreds of thousands of students will be embarking on their higher education journey. One of the key concerns of these youngsters will be funding. Will they be able to cope with the rising amount of debt accrued, as tuition fees rise and the cost of living continues to increase? Indeed, financial concerns will have stopped many youngsters applying for university in the first place - the thought of building up that amount of debt is simply too big of a burden for some to bear.

And with starting university a daunting prospect at the best of times, having to settle in to a new environment, find new friends and live away from home, often for the first time, it will come as no surprise that we’re seeing increasing numbers of students being referred to counsellors in recent years. But how can we ensure ever-present financial pressures don’t add to this stress and impact the wellbeing of those that have decided to pursue a university education?

How can we ensure ever-present financial pressures don’t add to this stress and impact the wellbeing of those that have decided to pursue a university education?

The big picture

It’s useful to first explore just how big this issue is. Research shows that once at university, financial stress experienced by students is a driving factor for poor wellbeing, lower academic performance and retention. Indeed, students who are under financial strain are some of the most likely to run into mental health issues – recent research from the University of Southampton and Solent NHS Trust revealed that students who experience financial difficulties and worry about debt, have a higher chance of suffering from depression and alcohol dependency. In addition, a report pulled together for the vice-chancellor of York University in May this year, revealed that 80 per cent of UK universities highlighted a noticeable increase in complex mental health crises among their student population in 2015, compared to 2014.

Add to this, research we undertook for our World of Good report earlier this year showed that the education gap between rich and poor is causing increased harm, with being from a low income household being cited as the biggest barrier to youngsters being able to succeed in the education system. Respondents in the research also cited that they thought this financial exclusion would only get progressively worse. Evidently, the link between financial stresses and mental health is hard to deny.


Collaboration is key

In order to start working towards resolving these problems, collaboration is needed. We need input from universities, education bodies, industry professionals, and the NHS - the issue can’t be solved by any of these groups in isolation. First of all, NHS support for students must be reassessed, made more readily available and more immediate. Lengthy waiting lists are no good for those who need immediate support and there must also be more education for students on where to go to get this support in the first place.

The financial help students receive should also be reconsidered so that students don’t need to sacrifice academic performance for the stress of struggling financially. A 2015 report into the mental wellbeing of students by NUS rightly stated that all students should be financially supported correctly to ensure that access to education is based on academic ability, and not their ability to pay. The organisation also suggests that students should also be given sufficient advice on budgeting and finance from the start of their academic experience.

We also need to assess whether universities are really doing enough to support students with emotional and mental health issues – many claim that financial institutions have been negligent with their responsibilities in the past. University staff should be trained to properly recognise when students are in financial strain and how to recognise when this is impacting them mentally. Educational institutions could also look to ramp up feedback mechanisms for students receiving mental health care, so they can ensure the support they’re providing is adequate.

Ultimately, investment in the mental health and wellbeing of students is vital. While it’s likely that the education system will be subject to even more funding pressures and budget cuts in years to come, support services mustn’t be eradicated as an easy way of saving money. If anything, they require more, and continued, investment if we’re to ensure that financial issues don’t add to the already huge pressures faced by students today.

Rosi Prescott

Central YMCA’s Chief Executive

Rosi Prescott is responsible for running the world's first YMCA – Central YMCA – which operates locally, nationally and internationally. Rosi joined the organisation in 2004 and has played a huge part in the revolution which has taken place within Central YMCA over the past decade. In particular, she has spearheaded a number of high profile campaigns addressing issues such as body image, peer-to-peer health, apprenticeships and youth unemployment.