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.