‘They made me feel invalid’: Shocking new figures show scale of student mental health crisis

4,000 students took The Tab’s mental health survey. Here’s what students are really dealing with


When you first rock up at university, you’re bombarded with a million pieces of information – the prospectus bangs on about how great the uni’s student experience is, you figure out how to navigate Circuit Laundry, and Freshers’ Fair gives you endless pens and condoms. Among all this is your university’s commitment to mental health – there are pamphlets in halls’ receptions, students get signposted to wellbeing apps, and you’re told how to contact your personal tutor.

UK universities in 2023 desperately want their students to know they are avid supporters of mental health. And yet, despite the freebies, unis spending thousands of pounds bringing “therapy animals” onto campus, and Instagram posts full of “patronising” advice, we are still facing an epidemic in student mental health issues.

The Tab asked 4,000 students at unis all around the country about their experiences with mental health at university for our 2022/23 Mental Health Survey, in partnership with Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), the suicide prevention charity. You Matter is The Tab’s annual campaign dedicated to highlighting the student mental health crisis.

Through the responses to our Mental Health Survey, we’ve been able to see a picture of the scale of the student mental health struggle on campus that all too often goes unseen.

The Tab’s survey found:

The majority of students live with mental health difficulties. 69 per cent have ever suffered with a mental health illness, and 61 per cent of students suffer with anxiety. For 80 per cent of students, this started before they came to university

Students’ mental health difficulties harm their learning. 85 per cent of students struggling with mental health have had to miss a lecture or seminar because of it, and 51 per cent have had to seek extenuating circumstances

But students aren’t happy with how uni handles mental health. Just 12 per cent said they think their uni handles the issue well

And the majority of students don’t want to tell their universities about their mental health. Less than half of those struggling have done so – and of those who have, 65 per cent were not happy with the help they’d received

“We know that suicide rates in under 25s are increasing at an alarming rate, so it’s really important that universities are able to support their students”, Wendy Robinson, Head of Services at suicide prevention charity CALM, told The Tab.

“A duty of care already exists for students under the age of 18 – and we believe much more needs to be done to ensure students’ mental health is prioritised in higher education. Universities have a responsibility to make sure their institutions are safe and positive environments, and we back calls for more policy to ensure this happens.”

Stock image (before edits) from The Tab’s archives

Just 12 per cent of students believe their university handles mental health well

69 per cent of students have ever suffered from a mental health illness –  but on the whole, students don’t believe their uni handles the issue well. When asked how they think their uni handles mental health in general, just 12 per cent said “well” or “very well” – compared to 38 per cent who said “badly” or “very badly”.

There were variations across different universities, but only a handful of respondents at each uni said their uni handles mental health “very well” – with not a single respondent at Oxford Brookes saying this. Compared to this, 24 per cent of York students said their uni handles mental health “well” or “very well”, along with 20 per cent of Lancaster and 19 per cent of Warwick students.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bristol students are the most unhappy with their university’s handling of mental health, with over half – 52 per cent – saying the uni handles the issue “badly” or “very badly”. 45 per cent of both Edinburgh and Glasgow students, and 42 per cent of Durham students, also said this.

How well students think their uni handles mental health:

“I am not surprised by this”, Megan*, a second year Bristol student, told The Tab. “The university is not prepared to handle mental health problems beyond the surface level.” Megan says she’s had friends “reach out to their tutors for support with mental health only to be met with copy and paste paragraphs explaining the student health service”, and says in her experience students are limited to just six counselling sessions.

Daisy, another second year Bristol student, echoed this, saying that for those who do receive uni support, in her experience “the response has often been slow and impractical”.

In Megan’s first year she faced a mental health crisis, but had to turn to the NHS and private support after the university offered her a session – for three weeks’ time. “It was upsetting to read public statements from the uni about how committed they are to mental health when they were failing me and my friends so badly in reality”, she said.

“I feel that Bristol is very concerned with its public image following the high profile court cases, but I have yet to see them follow through with meaningful action for students. I think they are worried about their reputation rather than care for students but I’ll be interested to see if they choose to make more changes over the next few years.”

Professor Evelyn Welch, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Bristol, told The Tab: “We regularly ask our students what they think about our services and our most recently published Student Wellbeing Survey showed more than 70 percent of students who accessed services found them useful. However, we know that we need to continue to listen to what our students, such as those in the Tab survey, tell us and ensure our services are accessible, effective, and responsive to students’ feedback.” The university’s full statement can be found below.

Almost two thirds of students suffer with anxiety

Anxiety is the most prevalent mental health issue amongst uni students – 61 per cent of students surveyed told us they have ever suffered with it.

54 per cent have ever suffered with depression, and 39 per cent told us they’ve ever experienced suicidal thoughts. 28 per cent of students have ever suffered with an eating disorder, 10 per cent with OCD, and three per cent with bipolar disorder.

Stress and loneliness are widespread on university campuses

Two-fifths of students feel stressed every single day. We asked students how many times they have felt stressed in the past week, and 41 per cent said seven times or more. Almost a third (31 per cent) said they’d felt stressed 10 times or more in the past week – compared to less than one per cent who said they hadn’t felt stressed at all in the past week.

Glasgow was the most stressed university, with 39 per cent of students saying they’ve felt stressed 10 times or more in the past week, followed by 32 per cent of Edinburgh and Lancaster students.

How often students have felt stressed in the last week:

Two thirds of all students, and 90 per cent of students who have ever had mental health difficulties, said they’ve experienced loneliness at university. Lancaster was the loneliest university, with 70 per cent of students reporting feeling it. “I would come home and sit on my bed with a movie and knit literally every single night – I have a blanket to prove for it! I was just very isolated”, Lancaster student Katie* told The Tab about her first year of uni. You can read Katie’s story, and other students’ experiences of loneliness, here.

Lancaster was followed by Cardiff (where 69 per cent of students have felt loneliness) and Exeter (almost 68 per cent). At the other end of the scale, students at Durham, Oxford Brookes, and Leeds all reported the least amounts of loneliness – but still, at every single uni over half of students reported feeling lonely.

How many students said they’ve ever experienced loneliness at uni: 

Of those who told us they have ever suffered with their mental health, 80 per cent said this began before university, and just 18 per cent said they have now recovered. 60 per cent said their mental health issue had been formally diagnosed by a doctor, and 81 per cent said they’ve ever felt embarrassed to tell anyone about it.

41 per cent of students said cost of living increases have had a serious impact on their mental health. 22 per cent said rent increases have had a serious impact, and 23 per cent said an unsuitable living environment, such as mould or temporary accommodation, has.

Less than half of students struggling with their mental health have told their university about it

We asked students who said they’ve ever suffered with mental health difficulties who they’d told about it. Most – 84 per cent – have told their friends, and 68 per cent said they’ve told their family. But less than half – 46 per cent – have told their universities about it.

Of those who had sought help from their university, 65 per cent said they weren’t satisfied with the help they’d received – rising to 73 per cent at Leeds and 71 per cent at Durham.

The breakdown of students who said they had sought help from their university but were not satisfied with the help they received, by university:

Bristol student Daisy says that when she’s absent due to her mental health, “I often just say I have been physically unwell instead. Whilst other students and some staff are understanding of mental health issues at university, physical illness still seems a lot better accepted and understood”, she says.

Second year York student Jess says she had an “awkward” experience with the uni’s wellbeing service, with a practitioner who she found unhelpful and made her feel “invalid and judged” in her first year. But this year she’s instead contacted her department, who Jess says “care so much about how you are” and are giving her the help she needs.

She thinks “York does do pretty well” in terms of student mental health, such as care packages being given out in the library during this year’s January exams, but believes universities in general “care about student mental health in apostrophes as a thing that they somewhat deal with”. However, she thinks universities are “becoming a lot more business-y” and seeing students as money (“teaching UK undergraduates loses universities money”, York’s Vice-Chancellor wrote in an article earlier this year). “I think in general, the purpose of university is getting lost. And when you lose the purpose of university, you lose care for the students, regardless of what else you do and regardless of what care packs you put out.”

Daisy echoes this: “I feel like students are seen more as sources of money more than people they have a responsibility towards.”

A York spokesperson told The Tab the uni “welcomes feedback” on how it can improve its services, saying the uni “continues to invest in mental health”. The uni’s full statement can be found below.

Stock image (before edits) from The Tab’s archives

Chris, a final year Warwick student who has used the uni’s wellbeing service and therapy programme, told The Tab his therapist was “excellent” for helping him through “somewhat short-term stresses of life”, but he thinks the service could struggle with “more severe cases”. Chris says he was only offered a maximum of five therapy sessions before having to reapply for it. “Not their fault, just sheer numbers”, he says, and he thinks increasing funds could help this.

“We remain committed to continuing to identify ways of improving and strengthening our processes further, which includes working in partnership with our community and mental health specialists”, a Warwick spokesperson told The Tab. The uni’s full statement can be found below.

Students are asking for more transparency from their unis around mental health. 88 per cent of students wish their university was more transparent about the amount of student suicides that happen. This is something Alice and Rupert Armstrong Evans are fighting for, after losing their beloved son Harry in his third year of university. They’re campaigning for Harry’s Law, a proposed change in the law that would rewrite the rules on how universities deal with student suicide. You can find out more information about Harry’s Law and how to sign their petition here.

A third of all students have had to apply for extenuating circumstances because of their mental health issue

Students’ mental health difficulties have an effect on their learning. 59 per cent of all students, and 85 per cent of students with a mental health issue, told us they’ve failed to make a lecture or seminar because of it.

35 per cent of all students have had to apply for extenuating circumstances because of their mental health issue, rising to 51 per cent of students struggling with their mental health who have had to seek special cons.

For the majority of students who had to apply for extenuating circumstances due to their mental health, these were granted – but shockingly, for almost one in six students who applied (16 per cent), these were not granted. This rose to 24 per cent at Durham and 21 per cent at Warwick.

The breakdown of students with mental health difficulties who said they’ve had to apply for extenuating circumstances because of it, and whether this was granted, by university:

Almost three quarters of university students have self-medicated by turning to drugs or alcohol when struggling with their mental health

Self-medicating is any attempt to deal with stress, anxiety or other mental health issues using substances. For many students and young people, taking substances, either socially or alone, provides an escape from their worries.

Just over a quarter – 26 per cent – of students across the UK said they have never self-medicated with drugs or alcohol, meaning that 74 per cent have turned to these substances when struggling with their mental health.

We asked students if they have ever self-medicated with drugs or alcohol – and if so, what? This is what they said:

The individual substance the most students reported ever self-medicating with was alcohol – with 41 per cent of students at all universities reporting doing so, rising to 46 per cent of students at York and Oxford Brookes.

However, whilst alcohol is the single substance students say they are self-medicating with the most, students on the whole said they turn to drugs more than alcohol – with a combined 55 per cent saying they have ever self-medicated with weed, ketamine, cocaine, MDMA, hallucinogenics, nitrous oxide, xanax or speed.

Sheffield Hallam student Mel, 20, smokes weed to help her social anxiety, which she says makes her “mind usually at 1,000 per cent, very fast and panicky”, and finds that smoking helps her “calm down and forget”. In particular, Mel told The Tab the pressure to get a job “makes up the most of [her] stress” and she struggles to relax when it’s on her mind – but weed helps her to. You can read The Tab’s full report on students self-medicating here.

The full breakdown, by university, of what students are turning to the most when struggling with their mental health:

“Whether it’s struggling with assignment deadlines, exams, money worries or your social life, being at uni can be really tough. If you’re struggling, you’re not alone”, Wendy Robinson of CALM told The Tab.

“There’s loads of help and support out there. The first step is to open up with someone you trust, whether that’s a mate, a family member, or someone at your university. Whatever you’re facing, there’s loads of information on the CALM website – from break ups and exam stress through to anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. And remember, if you’re feeling suicidal you can talk to CALM.”


Professor Evelyn Welch, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Bristol, said: “There is nothing more important than the health and wellbeing of our students at the University of Bristol. Our dedicated colleagues in student support and wellbeing work tirelessly for our students and care deeply about the support they provide.

“I am very sorry to hear about any student who feels they are facing stressful situations without the help they need. In a post-pandemic world, and with financial challenges, I know we need to continue to work closely with our Students’ Union and our student body to create the right environment for students to thrive as well as providing the very best mental health and wellbeing services we can.

“As part of this we regularly ask our students what they think about our services and our most recently published Student Wellbeing Survey showed more than 70 percent of students who accessed services found them useful. However, we know that we need to continue to listen to what our students, such as those in the Tab survey, tell us and ensure our services are accessible, effective, and responsive to students’ feedback.” The university also requested we link its wellbeing support, which can be found here.

A University of York spokesperson said: “We are sorry if any student feels they have not had a good experience and we really welcome feedback on how we can improve our services.

“We continue to invest in mental health, including access to a 24/7 clinical helpline, and we are committed to working closely with departments, our student unions, the NHS and other partners, so that supporting and promoting positive mental health remains a priority for all of us.”

A University of Warwick spokesperson said: “The safety and wellbeing of our students, staff and neighbours is our highest priority and we’re grateful for everyone’s support in keeping our community safe.

“At Warwick we provide a range of specialist support services – including counselling and psychological, emotional and practical wellbeing support, mental health mentoring, as well as access to in-person support through personal tutors and 24/7 digital mental health provision.

“We remain committed to continuing to identify ways of improving and strengthening our processes further, which includes working in partnership with our community and mental health specialists. Finally, we would urge any student who is struggling, or who has any concerns about a friend or peer, to contact our wellbeing team via our wellbeing portal. They will listen, help and provide support”.

A spokesperson for Oxford Brookes said: “The welfare of our students is of the utmost importance to Oxford Brookes, as we recognise that whilst university life presents many exciting opportunities, it can also bring challenges.

“The University is committed to providing a range of support and advice services, including confidential counselling, access to specialist mental health advisors, self-help resources and links to local networks and resources. Students are encouraged to contact the University’s Student Support Service if they need emotional support, or they can access free, confidential 24/7 support from TogetherAll.”

Lancaster Uni has also been contacted for comment.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or talk to CALM on 0800 58 58 58 (UK) or through their webchat. Their trained support workers are available from 5pm to midnight every day to provide practical support and advice, whatever you’re going through.

You can also contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time, Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Student Minds online here. You matter.

The Tab’s You Matter campaign is dedicated to highlighting the student mental health crisis. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing izzy@thetab.com

More from The Tab’s You Matter campaign:

Introducing Harry’s Law: The petition fighting to change how universities deal with suicide

Two thirds of students have felt loneliness at uni. These are their stories

Students are self-medicating to cope with their mental health. Here are the shocking figures

*Some names have been changed to protect students’ privacy

Stock featured image (before edits) via Andrew Neel/Unsplash