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Finding our own way

Mental health and moving from school to further and higher education

Author: Androulla Harris

This report explores the impact of transitions into and between further and higher education on students’ mental health and ways in which these might be improved. It reviews existing literature on this topic and then draws on interviews and focus groups with students and professionals.

The research we have reviewed indicates that mental health difficulties are increasing among further education and higher education students. Research demonstrates that the period of 16-25 is associated with a number of risk factors with the potential to affect a young person’s mental health.

Going to further education (FE) college or university involves several periods of transition, which can require significant adaptation, cause distress and affect a young person’s mental health and wellbeing. Risk factors for both further and higher education students include study and academic demands, anxiety relating to future careers, social experience, living at university and financial pressures. For higher education students, research has found there are particularly risky periods for student mental health, including the transition to university and during second year.

Research indicates that some groups of students face a greater number of risks for poorer mental health and experience unique challenges that negatively affect their wellbeing. These include students with existing mental health difficulties, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, overseas students and LGBT+ students.

Evidence suggests that an increasing number of students are seeking support from university counselling services. However there remain numerous barriers to help-seeking, including stigma (leading students to believe they will be treated differently or seen as ‘weak’), poor communication about the help available and a lack of knowledge or understanding among academic staff.

Our focus groups found that schools and FE colleges were perceived as offering a more personal approach to wellbeing and both students and staff feared that this would be lost at university. There were particular concerns about the transitions for students with existing mental health difficulties and those with special educational needs and disability (SEND) status.

Young people described facing a range of pressures, not just to achieve academically but to move to a new area, to fend for themselves, to make friends, to have a good social life, to cope with increased access to alcohol and drugs and to ‘make the most of university life’. Many expressed fears about being seen to be struggling or being unsuccessful. This makes it difficult for them to ask for help or disclose distress, particularly among peers.

Other young people described feeling pressures from parents, particularly in the light of the growing cost of university education, and the impact of their leaving on their family.

We heard a number of examples of schools, FE colleges and universities working proactively to support students with mental health difficulties or those at risk of difficult transitions.