ONE in three students in Scotland has reported moderately severe or severe symptoms of depression in the latest study into the mental health and wellbeing of its kind in Scotland.

It also found that more than half of university students (57%) reported concealing a mental health problem for fear of stigmatisation.

The study involving 15,000 university students in Scotland found nearly three in four of university students reported having low wellbeing, and nearly half of respondents (45%) reported that they had experienced a serious psychological issue that they felt needed professional help.

The report led by the Mental Health Foundation calls for sector-wide change to support offered at universities.

It made a series of recommendations including calling for student wellbeing to become a measure of success for all universities in Scotland.

It called on Scottish Government funding for focused wellbeing support and that universities should undertake further research and training to better understand the impact of trauma on student mental health and wellbeing.


Over 15,000 students from all 19 universities in Scotland participated in the Thriving Learners study between January and April 2021, during the second national COVID-19 lockdown, to better understand the current state of student mental health, what support is available, what works, and what is still needed.

Julie Cameron, Associate Director of Mental Health Foundation in Scotland, said: “The number of students experiencing low wellbeing or symptoms of poor mental health is alarming. We all feel low at times, but it is vital that the right supports are in place to prevent mental health problems developing or escalating.

“We know that universities all over Scotland care about the wellbeing of their students. Currently the path to mental health and wellbeing support for students can be confusing and often the proposed solution is mental health counselling, for which there may be a lengthy wait."

“We need sector-wide change, and we are pleased that universities across Scotland are open to our recommendations for continued improvement including incorporating student wellbeing within their measures of success. We’d like to see a broader wellbeing support-model that includes a variety of interventions and services available at every university to empower students with the skills and knowledge to live a healthy and happy life, and feel reassured that more intensive support is available when it’s needed.”

The foundation say that a move to a sector-wide support model focused on well-being would mean that, no matter which university they attended, a student would have access to a range of supports.

The charity hopes that changing the culture of mental health support at university to a broader wellbeing approach for all would empower people to be more open, seek and find the right help at an earlier stage, and prevent mental health problems developing or worsening.

Ms Cameron added: “We need to normalise conversations about wellbeing and mental health so that students are comfortable reaching out for help but also that both students and staff understand support doesn’t necessarily mean mental health counselling. Our study also revealed students’ positive coping mechanisms such as being in green spaces, doing exercise, and connecting with family and friends. So, in many cases a different kind of help, such as an introduction to an extracurricular group with their peers, may be a better option than a formal mental health appointment.”

The Mental Health Foundation urged caution in attributing too much reasoning for the study results to the impact of Covid-19, lockdowns and restrictions.

They believe it is clear that existing inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic so the 22 per cent of students who were worried about running out of food and the 24 per cent who ate less due to lack of money, were likely to have already been struggling financially.

The charity says there should now also be an urgent roundtable discussion about widening access and tackling student poverty and food insecurity, both among the root causes of poor mental health, in a bid to find and implement solutions supported by decision-makers at Scottish Government, the university sector, and poverty organisations.

Pamela Gillies, principal of Glasgow Caledonian University and lead member for mental health at Universities Scotland said: “The data achieves most where it catalyses action. As universities, we are determined that it will. Mental health is a strategic commitment of every institution in Scotland and a personal priority of every Principal.

“We will act, individually and collectively, on the findings and recommendations. Having had the benefit of being close to the research throughout, I can say that we’ve wasted no time and we are already acting on the findings. We owe that to every student in our institutions.”

Minister for higher and further education Jamie Hepburn said: “We know the period of lockdown and reduced class time has had a significant impact on student mental health and we are determined to support our students as we return to a more normal way of university and college life.

“The results of the Mental Health Foundation’s study will, together with other evaluation evidence and research, inform the development of our Student Mental Health Action Plan.

“Over the last two years the Scottish Government has invested more than £7 million to introduce more than 80 additional counsellors in colleges and universities and we are well on way to achieving that. In the current academic year we have provided an additional £4.4 million for colleges to help student and staff respond to the pandemic.”