Levels of mental illness, mental distress and low wellbeing among students in higher education in the UK are increasing, and are high relative to other sections of the population.

Around three-quarters of adults with a mental illness first experience symptoms before the age of 25. With widening access to higher education the student population is more closely reflecting the UK’s wider socioeconomic and demographic make-up, and a growing proportion of students would appear to be affected by mental illness. Over the past 10 years there has been a fivefold increase in the proportion of students who disclose a mental health condition to their institution.

The higher education sector and government both have an interest in helping to improve the mental health and wellbeing of students. Universities should make the issue a strategic priority and adopt a ‘whole-university’ approach based on prevention and promotion, early intervention and low-level support, responding to risk and crisis management, and referral into care and treatment. There is currently too much variation in the extent to which universities are equipped to meet this challenge. This sector-led approach should be complemented by strengthened NHS provision and new government initiatives to ensure that no student is held back by their mental health.