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Solitary Students: One in Four UK Students Without Friends at University, Accenture Research Finds

Young person alone on a park bench

A major new report from @Accenture and Cibyl called University: The Best Time of Our Lives? – reveals that many UK university students are struggling with loneliness and declining mental health.

The survey of more than 12,000 students across 140 universities in the UK found that a quarter of students (24%) reported not having a real friend at university, even into their second and third years (20% in years 2 and 3). As social restrictions and other impacts of the pandemic continued, more than half (55%) of respondents stated they felt lonely every day or every week and 45% said they had been avoiding socialising in person or online with others.

The isolation currently felt by students appears to be contributing significantly towards declining mental health. Four in ten students (39%) report a deterioration in their mental health since starting university, and more than half (53%) experienced at least seven symptoms of poor mental health over the past year*.

The report also revealed that students from different backgrounds have different experiences when it comes to mental health. Those with longer term or more serious mental health issues are much more likely to have their mental health decline further at university (58%), followed by neurodiverse students (49%), those with disabilities (45%), women (43%) and LGBTQ students (42%).

Worryingly, one in four reported suicidal thoughts for the first time during university (25%), which rose to almost half (47%) of those from lower socio-economic groups and to 67% and 81% respectively for LGBQ and transgender students.

“University is a formative part of so many young people’s lives and can be a great leveller when it comes to the career opportunities open to students from all backgrounds,” said Barbara Harvey, Managing Director and Mental Health Sponsor at Accenture UK. “However, our research reveals that, despite the resources and support services universities provide, university is not a dream experience for everyone and there’s a significant disconnect between the experiences of different students. With almost half of young people in the UK now going into higher education, and this year’s cohort doing so after 18 months of disrupted learning and social lives, universities must enhance both the technology-based and human mental health support on offer for those that need it.” 

Pandemics, preparedness and pressure

Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has played a significant role in eroding students’ well-being, with 80% saying that it contributed to their poor mental health. However, the poor state of student mental health preceded the pandemic; only 13% of students attributed their mental health challenges fully to COVID-19.

Preparation for the university experience is a sticking point when it comes to mental health. Only one in ten students claimed they felt completely prepared for the reality of university life, with those feeling less prepared more likely to report mental health challenges (44% versus 32%). Perhaps most significantly, they were 1.6 times more likely to see their mental health decline since starting university (54% vs 33%).

Making mental health matter

Universities are well aware of the need to provide mental health support, and virtually all of them do. But the research revealed that most students aren’t utilising the services on offer, with 60% of respondents who have a mental health challenge** stating they do not access any support provided. When asked why they do not seek mental health support at university, four in ten (42%) said it was simply a case of not knowing what to say or how to express their feelings.   Also, it was not just mental health services that students were not opening up to. Whilst most talk to family or friends, a concerning 17% talk to no-one, which rises to 32% of men and 20% of ethnic minority students.

To address the findings of the research, Accenture has proposed a framework for universities to help address student mental health and well-being:

  1. Know: Understand the mental health risk profile of your students even before they start and proactively target interventions
  2. Support: Provide the right level of support, making it easy and a natural act to access it. Offer multiple channels to allow students to choose an approach that’s right for them
  3. Teach: Educate students on what good mental health is, how to maintain it, the value of seeking help early and how to support themselves and others
  4. Connect: Help students to adapt to university life, forge meaningful friendships and reduce loneliness: there is a strong correlation between feeling connected and well-being
  5. Culture: University Chancellors should adopt the principles enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath: do no harm and prevention is better than cure
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