Permanent student withdrawals from university due to poor mental health have been dramatically on the rise since the academic year 2015-2016 at eight UK universities, a VICE investigation can reveal.
Over this time period, conversations about mental health have dominated the mainstream media as well as social media; the number of students disclosing a mental health condition has risen dramatically; and Gen Z have spoken up about living with high levels of anxiety.
Of the 70 UK universities we sent Freedom of Information requests to, asking to know the number of students withdrawing for mental health reasons, eight – including York, Lancaster and Stirling – said they held the information. The most stark of these was Brunel University, whose percentage of mental health leavers rose by 3,700 percent over three years (from one leaver in 2016/2017 to 38 in 2018/19), while dropouts due to mental health reasons at Bristol University more than doubled in four years (42 students in the 2015/16 academic year, rising to 93 in 2018/19). An average drop out rate across all the universities was 1,084 percent.
This response highlights a worrying issue: the data regarding the number of university students leaving their studies for mental health reasons is not readily available. However from the little information we do have it’s clear that there may be a growing problem.
The universities that did not respond with figures said they only officially categorised potential mental health leavers as leaving for their "health" or "personal" reasons. Some had further notes on individuals but to look into each case individually would have gone over the cost limit for the FOI – meaning the public can’t access this data.
Clinical psychologist, Dr Gordon Milson, believes it’s vital we have access to the information. The category of ‘health’, he points out, could refer to a litany of student issues that the university has no ability to do anything for, or could offer huge amounts of help towards. "Anything where you’re looking at rates of leaving and the cause has doubled [or more], you’re left with quite significant questions about why that is," he said, of the drop-out rates that have risen fourteenfold. "If that’s the kind of data coming through it certainly requires a closer look. The thing is you can’t answer the questions at the moment. The information that you’ve got suggests that there is a problem but the data isn’t collected in a way that allows us to answer that question. How much of a concern is that? I would suggest quite a bit of a concern."
HESA – the Higher Education Statistics Agency – collects the basic data on university leavers. Most universities referred to following the HESA guidelines on categorising leavers. And so, I asked HESA directly about how they decided on the categories. Their press officer said on the phone that he didn’t know but confirmed that the categories in question had been that way for a “long time”. They also said that any future changes to these categories would have to be demanded by what are known as statutory customers – the Office For Students, the Department for Education, the Welsh and Scottish government and other official bodies. What this vagueness means is that unless the Department for Education and those other groups strive to pull out the specific data on students dropping out because of mental health issues, universities aren’t bound to collect that information.
That lack of a mental health category is “just an old-school hangover”, according to Dr Dominique Thompson, a student mental health expert. “It would be quite hard to keep accurate records, [but] it might be possible to keep a rough record, and trends. Counselling service access numbers, which have gone up 20 percent year on year in many places, give a good indication of where services and support are needed, but drop out [numbers] would also add to that info and possibly help with planning to prevent issues reaching crisis point.” In other words, if universities knew their drop out numbers were rising, they could allocate more resources to helping students before they reach a point where they can't face continuing to study.
Naturally, with something as complicated as mental health, categorisation is not easy. Student mental health charity Student Minds made an important point when they told VICE, “Whilst tracking student withdrawals due to mental health sounds helpful, there is a broad spectrum of mental health difficulties that can impact a students’ experience in a number of ways, so it may be hard to glean useful insights.” The HESA press officer also suggested that some universities are better at chasing up students who left suddenly than others, with many just being lost to the ether (or suburbia with their parents). It would take, then, a more conscious effort on the part of universities to attempt to keep open a solid line of communication with students who leave or may want to.
Ultimately, there could be a far fuller picture of student mental health in the UK than there is. Between this potential set data on leavers, if it was properly collected, and the data set we already have on students arriving at university disclosing their mental health condition (a 73 percent increase between 2014 to 2018), we could determine something useful. A resonant question could be answered, according to Dr Milson: “People are turning up to university with mental health problems and they have informed the university – but are their needs are being met?” If a university were truly aware of a student’s mental illness, they would ideally be supporting them enough to ensure to a reasonable degree that they’ll feel able to complete their studies.
Professor Sarah Purdy, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at the University of Bristol, told VICE: “Mental health is fast emerging as the single biggest public health issue affecting young people today. The scale of the challenges means all universities must re-evaluate every aspect of their student and staff mental health and wellbeing support and provision.”
To some extent it’s not just the university experience itself that would lead a student to drop out. “There is the greater context of the wellbeing of the nation or societal factors that impact on young people. Austerity measures and students having to work while not able to keep up with their studies creates an additional pressure on mental health,” says Dr Milson. “Those things would have to be looked at as well.”
Still, without this data, we can’t hold universities to account or know what we’re dealing with. With a 1,084 percent percent rise in mentally unwell premature leavers across eight universities, it would seem there is something serious to deal with.
University is a major transition in anyone's life. Mental health issues and/or mental illness can make this unstable time even more complicated. Elsewhere on the site, we're featuring advice from experts to universities , testimonials from recent first-year students about their freshers week mental health triggers and hearing the personal stories from parents left behind by a tragic spate of student suicides at the University of Bristol.
But if you or anyone you know is affected by the issues raised in this story, please use the following resources if you'd like more help. In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans are open 24/7, at 116 123. In the US, if you're in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.