The Scottish Government is being called upon to provide more support to colleges after a survey, said to be the largest of its kind, found “alarming” levels of depression and food poverty among students.
The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) Scotland interviewed 2,086 college students to understand their mental health and wellbeing.
The results, published in a report called Thriving Learners on Thursday, showed more than half of students surveyed – 54% – reported having moderate, moderately severe, or severe symptoms of depression.
Meanwhile, 37% experienced food insecurity in the previous 12 months.
Among the students who have experienced food insecurity, 25% had severe symptoms of depression.
The research also found one in six of the participants lived in a household that ran out of food in the previous 12 months.
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 data was collected between February and May this year, before the harshest impacts of the cost of living crisis were taking hold.
Julie Cameron, associate director at MHF in Scotland, said the results show the system is failing the country’s quarter of a million college students.
She has called for increased and sustained Scottish Government investment to help tackle the issue.
She said: “The findings of our Thriving Learners study are alarming. 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 support for our quarter of a million college students across Scotland.”
Recommendations made by the MHF in the report include asking college support services to enhance communications with students, particularly those at higher risk of poor mental health, about mental health and the wellbeing support available.
To help address student poverty, the report recommends annual data collection by the Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council to better understand the scale of the problem and find solutions.
The study found more vulnerable students, including those who are care-experienced, estranged, have unpaid caregiving 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 stressed the need for support to have an increased focus on these groups.
Jon Vincent, principal of Glasgow Clyde College, 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.”
The study was led by MHF in partnership with Colleges Scotland and funded by The Robertson Trust.
Minister for higher and further education Jamie Hepburn said: “We know the period of lockdown and the ongoing cost of living crisis has had a significant impact on student mental health. We are determined to support our students as we return to a more normal way of life in both further and higher education.
“Over the last three academic years the Scottish Government has invested more than £11.5m to introduce more than 80 additional counsellors in colleges and universities – over and above what institutions already provide.
“We are developing an evidence and research informed Student Mental Health Plan in association with representatives from student organisations at both colleges and universities, as well as mental health experts. In addition we are funding the NUS Think Positive Initiative and have invested in mental wellbeing through NHS Scotland.
“We have also provided £16.8m in hardship funding to colleges and universities for the current academic year to support students experiencing financial hardship. I have written to college and university principals urging them to continue to prioritise the allocation of hardship funds to those students most in need, and to take account of the impact of rising energy bills which we know is having an effect on wellbeing.”