New research: College students in Scotland report significant symptoms of depression with more than one third experiencing food insecurity

The largest study on the mental health and wellbeing of college students in Scotland has revealed more than one third (37%) experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months, according to the report published by Mental Health Foundation today.

More than 2,000 students from colleges across Scotland participated in the Thriving Learners study which also found that more than half of students surveyed (54%) reported having moderate, moderately severe, or severe symptoms of depression. Among students who have experienced food insecurity, a quarter (25%) had severe symptoms of depression.

Despite the prevalence of mental health problems among the college student population, more than half (55%) said they have concealed a mental health problem due to fear of stigmatisation.

The study is led by Mental Health Foundation in partnership with Colleges Scotland and funded by The Robertson Trust. Surveys and qualitative research were undertaken between February and May 2022, before the harshest impacts of the cost-of-living crisis were taking hold. Yet, at this time one in six students (17%) lived in a household that had ran out of food in the past 12 months.

These findings and others shared within the report have prompted a series of recommendations from Mental Health Foundation and Colleges Scotland including calls for sustained Scottish Government investment in mental health and wellbeing supports at college. College support services are also encouraged to enhance communications to students, particularly those at higher risk of poor mental health, about mental health and wellbeing supports available.

To help address student poverty, the report recommends annual data collection by Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council to better understand the scale of the problem and find solutions. Without strong data on college student poverty, it is challenging for colleges to take the right mitigating steps against the context of reducing funding for the college sector and pressures on the National Health Service.

Julie Cameron, Associate Director at Mental Health Foundation in Scotland, said: “The findings of our Thriving Learners study are alarming. Far from thriving, a high number of students are struggling to pay for food and have poor mental health, including severe symptoms of depression.

“The links between financial strain, food insecurity and poor mental health are undeniable. We are failing our college students, who are primarily young people, if we do not ensure that they all have access to the right support for good physical and mental health.

“We know colleges are under a lot of pressure following the budget cuts of recent years. We need the Scottish Government to commit to increased investment and sustained funding for mental health and wellbeing supports for our quarter of a million college students across Scotland. As well as mental health counselling services in colleges, this investment should feature a wide range of measures to support healthy wellbeing and prevent mental health problems developing, such as working with student associations to deliver peer support for students. Several colleges have run breakfast and lunch clubs to ensure students are getting a nutritious meal during the cost-of-living crisis, we need to be able to offer this in all colleges in Scotland.”

Students with increased vulnerabilities including those who are care experienced, estranged, have unpaid care giving responsibilities, live with a long-term health condition, or identify as other gender had poorer mental health and wellbeing outcomes across every metric. The report highlights the need for any support made available to college students to have an increased focus on these groups.

Jon Vincent, Principal of Glasgow Clyde College and Lead Principal for Mental Health, said: “This research is very stark. To see that so many college students are struggling with their mental health is very worrying, especially when safeguarding the wellbeing of our students is part of the core responsibility of a college.

“While the data is a cause for concern, it does provide us with a much clearer picture of the scale of the challenges students and their families face and allows us to advocate more effectively on their behalf.

“I know some of our students have very real struggles with their mental health and anxiety which is of course under more pressure because of the cost-of-living crisis. But helping students to succeed is why we are here, and I strongly encourage any students needing help to seek support from their college who will be well equipped to do so.”

DonnaMarie Steel, Programmes and Practice Officer at The Robertson Trust, said: "Through our in-house scholarship programme, we have seen first-hand how barriers to engaging in Further or Higher Education can impact a student's emotional wellbeing.

“This has been clearly highlighted by the study's findings and we are pleased to have been able to contribute to this much-needed resource for the sector. We look forward to following the progress of the Mental Health Foundation’s recommendations."

To download the report, visit the Mental Health Foundation website.

The Thriving Learners survey was live from 24 February to 23 May 2022 and had a total sample size of 2086 college students in Scotland.

 Recommendations from Thriving Learners:

1. College student support services should strengthen their communication and engagement with students to help increase awareness of mental health and wellbeing supports. This should specifically focus on communication and engagement with students with vulnerabilities and those that work with them to ensure more consistent and clear information for these students prior to them starting college and across their journey.

2. Colleges should undertake consultation and/or research to understand the nature of mental health stigma among students. This should help inform future activity to challenge stigma including enabling staff to address stigma.

3. Scottish Government should provide increased investment and sustained funding for mental health and wellbeing supports in colleges. This should include wellbeing interventions that benefit general health.

4. Colleges should work closely with Student Associations to identify and implement innovative wellbeing supports. This could include increased opportunities for peer support and peer mentoring in colleges. As part of any service development the poorer outcomes of students with increased vulnerabilities and/or who experience discrimination should be noted and additional efforts made in the design and development of any mental health and wellbeing services to meet the needs of these students.

5. Colleges Scotland, the college sector, and NHS should develop clear mechanisms to increase regional planning between the sector and NHS to promote better integration of support between the NHS and college sector for students with complex mental health needs.

6. The NHS and college sector should undertake a process to agree the parameters on the reasonable duty of care of colleges. This should be supported by agreement on a streamlined referral pathway for students who need more intensive support than can be provided within the college setting. Once agreed these pathways should be implemented across the sector. This should be done with urgency as some students are currently being failed by both systems.

7. The college sector, local authorities and schools should work together to develop a standardisation of minimum data sharing expectations between schools and colleges around mental health and wellbeing supports of students. This should be done in consultation with young people and those that support them.

8. Colleges and key funding agencies, including Scottish Government, need to work together to implement a post pandemic recovery plan that recognises and addresses the impact of the pandemic on student learning and social confidence.

9. Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council should collaborate on a new annual data collection which measures college student poverty across the academic year and seeks to mitigate poverty in all its forms so that learners can thrive during their time as a college student. Without strong data on college student poverty, it is challenging for colleges to take the right mitigating steps against the context of reducing funding for the college sector and pressures on the National Health Service.

About the survey:

The Thriving Learners survey was live from 24 February 2022 – 23 May 2022 and had a total sample size of 2086 college students in Scotland. This sample represents 1% of the Scottish college population. The only eligibility criteria for the participants was that they had to be a current student attending a Scottish college. The responses were gathered using a self-selecting sampling approach that was facilitated by colleges promoting the survey to their students. This was supplemented by 18 qualitative interviews with key stakeholders across the sector. The study received a favourable ethical opinion from the University of Strathclyde Ethics Committee prior to launch.

About The Mental Health Foundation:

Our vision is of good mental health for all. The Mental Health Foundation works to prevent mental health problems. We will drive change towards a mentally healthy society for all, and support communities, families and individuals to lead mentally healthy lives with a particular focus on those at greatest risk. The Foundation is the home of Mental Health Awareness Week.  


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