SCOTTISH university students are facing a mental health crisis sparked by spiralling debts and the pressure to succeed.

The warning from student body NUS Scotland comes as new figures show the number of students seeking counselling has nearly doubled in the past five years.

The figures show there were 4,541 requests for counselling support in 2012/13 but that has soared to 8,180 in 2016/17.

Part of the rise can be explained by increased awareness of mental health and the services universities provide, as well as a growing student population.

However, student body NUS Scotland argues that student mental health is worsening because of the significant pressures that come with student life such as exam stress, part-time working and debt.

Student debt in Scotland is rising faster than anywhere else in the UK, but is still significantly lower than levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland where there is no policy of free tuition.

In addition, the drive to widen access to students from more disadvantaged backgrounds means more students are attending university without necessarily having financial or other support from their families.

Since 2012/13 the number of full-time counsellors employed by universities has risen slowly from 21 to 26. There are now 55 part time counsellors compared to 50 five years ago.


Liam McCabe, president of student body NUS Scotland, said the figures highlighted a "mental health crisis" on university campuses.

He said: "Across Scotland, universities are seeing demand rocket, while resources are increasingly stretched.

“While everyone can experience mental ill-health, student life comes with huge pressures – from balancing study with part-time work, to finding a new home, or a job come graduation time.

"While it’s vital to tackle the causes of these pressures it’s also crucial that counselling services are in place to help those students whose mental health is affected."

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Mr McCabe said when students were able to access services on campus they reported high satisfaction rates with services "crucial" in ensuring students didn't drop out.

But he added: "Provision is patchy at best with students facing a postcode lottery over whether they’ll receive counselling services and how long they’ll have to wait to access this vital help.

"Given the level of unmet demand these figures show, the Scottish Government must intervene and provide the funding needed to ensure that every student has access to the support services they need.”

Andrew Reeves, chair of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, also called for properly resourced counselling in universities.

He said: "Counselling can provide accessible, timely, specialist support to distressed students, helping them to continue with, and successfully complete, their studies as well as cope with the specific pressures of university life and common mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.

"It is deeply concerning if universities are considering downgrading or reducing counselling services within their institutions, particularly surrounding complex mental health needs amongst students.

“A service provided within the university setting provides an easy to access, familiar and less stigmatising environment in which to receive mental health support, and so is more likely than traditional NHS-based services to be used by students."

David Lott, deputy director of Universities Scotland, said the welfare of students was a top priority for all institutions in Scotland.

He added: "We want to help our students with their problems as early as possible and students in need should speak to staff.

“We are aware that the demand for mental health services is rising at our institutions and that, more broadly, there are challenges faced by these type of services. We also know that poor mental health does not discriminate when it comes to age, status or background."

He added that Professor Pamela Gillies, Principal of Glasgow Caledonian University, has recently been appointed to look at the provision of mental health services in the sector.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said it was working with the NUS to make sure support was in place for students.

She said: “Our Mental Health Strategy recognises that students of further and higher education face some unique challenges. With this in mind we are providing funding of more than £250,000 over three years to develop the NUS Think Positive Campaign. This will ensure that all colleges and universities in Scotland have a Student Mental Health Agreement in place. These agreements aim to build strong support for students and staff around mental health, and ensure that anyone experiencing mental ill health feels able to continue in their studies without facing stigma or discrimination.”