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Student Mental Health, Use of Services and Academic Attainment

Paul Surtees, Nick Wainwright, Paul Pharoah

University of Cambridge Counselling Service (2000)


A new report recently published by the University of Cambridge provides us with a valuable insight into the extent of mental health difficulties amongst students within one UK higher education institution. The study, carried out by questionnaire with 1200 students between 1995 and 1997, had three main aims:

  • To investigate the prevalence and severity of psychological problems amongst students at the University throughout their course of study.
  • To assess students' use of the university counselling service and other support agencies.
  • To investigate links between student mental health and academic attainment

Consistent with previous research, psychological distress amongst Cambridge students was apparent, with one fifth of the students reporting at least one problem which caused them substantial worry. Academic problems caused students greatest concern, closely followed by financial concerns and social/personal relationship problems. Interestingly, women seemed more distressed than men with females reporting one and a half times as many problems as males.

At Cambridge, as with a number of UK institutions, addictive habits were rife. One in ten students reported drug use on a weekly basis and a similar number used alcohol to a level which suggested alcohol-related problems.

Additionally, eating disorders, which are of growing concern nationally, affected only the female students with 6% of women reporting problems in this area.

A study into suicide at Cambridge University published last year found that suicide rates at the university had declined and were lower than the national average (Collins I P; Paykel E S 2000). Findings from the present study show that 6% of the students surveyed had considered suicide and just under 1% had made an attempt.

Of some concern was the finding that use of support agencies at the university was not very high with 35% of students who reported one or more defined problems not seeking help. In fact, only 10% reported seeking help from support agencies with as little as 8% approaching the university's own counselling service. Furthermore, those students who did consult the service were shown to have greater levels of distress than those who did not seek support. On the positive side, counselling was shown to be beneficial with 75% reporting that the help and advice given by the service had helped to resolve their presenting problems.

Social and psychological factors were found to have a negative effect on academic outcome. Students who reported problems in 1996 and 1997 were two and five times less likely, respectively, to achieve a first class mark. Those students who reported problems in their final year of study were ten times less likely to be awarded a first class mark.

Filed Under: Reports

Last edited: 27 02 2009