University students

University students

The prevalence of mental health conditions seems to be similar in university student and non-student populations (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2021a). However, some students can be at greater risk of experiencing mental health conditions due to a combination of academic, social and financial factors (Thorley, 2017). A review of risk and protective factors for students found that (Campbell et al., 2022):

  • LGBTQ+ students are at 1.5 to 4.5 times more likely to have mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal behaviour.
  • Experiences of childhood trauma are significantly associated with poor mental health, although it is unclear if this poses additional stresses for students at university.
  • Autistic students are more likely to experience depression than their peers.
  • Students with a personal or family history of mental illness are more likely to experience mental health problems during university.
  • Protective factors include social support and psychological strengths (such as self-esteem and resilience).

Nationally, suicide rates amongst university students have increased since 2010. However the suicide rate is lower in students compared the same age group in the general population (Gunnell et al., 2020).

What is the local picture?

Half of all young adults enter higher education by the time they are 30 years old (Universities UK, 2021). In Cambridge, there are around 12,000 students at Anglia Ruskin University and 24,000 students at the University of Cambridge.

  • A 2018 survey of over 1700 students at Anglia Ruskin University found that (Belcher, 2018):
    • 1 in 3 students reported having a mental health condition before coming to university.
    • Most respondents experienced stress, anxiety and sleep problems whilst at university.
    • Half of students were worried about their own mental health and/or the mental health of a friend.
    • 2 in 3 students felt their studies had contributed to their mental health problems.
  • A 2018 survey at the University of Cambridge found that (Ropek-Hewson, 2019):
    • 67% of postgraduate students reported having mental health problems (both diagnosed and undiagnosed). Women, LGBTQ+ students, and students in the humanities were more likely to report mental health problems.
    • 61% of respondents felt that a ‘competitive and high pressured university environment’ had impacted their mental health; and 37% reported that financial problems had an impact.

In terms of accessing support:

  • A 2018 survey of over 1700 students at Anglia Ruskin University found that concerns about waiting times for the Counselling and Wellbeing Service, as well as the availability of counsellors, were common (Belcher, 2018).
  • There was a 28% increase in the number of people accessing support from the University of Cambridge’s central mental health services from 2017 to 2021 (Shepka & Mulroy, 2022). 3 times as many people sought out mental health support from college-based mental health services over this time period.

Figure 27: How many students accessed the following forms of mental health support at the University of Cambridge, in 2017 and 2021? Data source: (Shepka & Mulroy, 2022)

Additional resources 


Full list of references is included at the end of this chapter.