A Fresh Perspective

Many factors suggested as causing student mental distress (like the transition from home/school to university) have been true for generations of students, so are unlikely to explain why reported distress has increased. ​

That’s why, in our research, we’re exploring what has changed in young people’s lives that might explain the increase. We’re focusing in particular on what is happening to young people before they go to university – and would welcome any feedback on this from fellow researchers.

Does mental distress start before university?

That’s one conclusion from the largest mental health survey ever conducted with UK university students.(1) A third reported having a serious personal, emotional, behavioural or mental health problem which they felt needed professional help. Of these, 81.6% reported their symptoms first started in secondary school – not university. So, what has been happening in the school years that might explain this?

Are ‘exam factory’ schools the problem?  

Some teachers’ unions believe State schools are turning into ‘exam factories’ and see this as one of the top causes of mental distress (alongside family problems and social media).(2) However, the Children’s Society has reported a significant rise in reported happiness at school between 2004 and 2016 and with schoolwork between 1995 and 2016(3). This suggests we may need to widen our search.

Might ‘helicopter parents’ be a factor?

As early as 2002 the children’s charity Barnardo’s was hypothesising that the continuing societal push to safeguard children from harm, while well intentioned, might help explain why young people appear to have become less resilient and more prone to psycho social ill health.(4)

Now schools in middle class areas are reporting a more extreme version of safeguarding i.e. ‘helicopter parents’, who hover over their children, ready to swoop in and protect them at the first sign of difficulty – including frequently intervening on their children’s behalf at school.

Most published research suggests adverse effects for their children, including increased levels of anxiety, stress and depression; increased emotional problems; neuroticism; dependency; sense of entitlement (believing others should solve their problems); low self-efficacy; and poorer coping skills.(5) This might help explain the increase in mental distress among some middle class students.
At the same time, as one former Head Teacher we spoke to observed, adolescents can be quite good at ‘playing’ their parents and may, in practice, be more susceptible to peer pressure, in particular now through social media.

So might social media be to blame?

Social media is now all-pervasive for young people. We see children swiping their way through tablets before they can properly walk and on the latest social media sites throughout school. In the US Jean Twenge has been researching generational differences for over twenty years. She concludes there is compelling evidence that smartphones are having profound effects on young people’s lives – and making them seriously unhappy, with girls at particular risk.(6)

One further consequence of social media identified by Twenge is that across a range of behaviours - drinking, dating, spending time unsupervised - 18-year-olds now act more like 15-year-olds used to. Because of social media, might today’s undergraduates be arriving at university less independent and equipped with coping skills than their predecessors? If so, might this also help explain the significant reported increase in student mental distress? 

Michael Baber    August 2019 

This article first appeared as a blog on the website of SMARTEN, a national research network funded by UK Research and Innovation, focusing on Student Mental Health in Higher Education.