Transitions between school, further education (FE) college and university can put pressure on students’ mental health, according to a report published today by Centre for Mental Health and the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust.

Finding our own way explores the impact of transitions into and between further and higher education on students’ mental health, and looks at ways these can be improved. It finds that going to FE college or university involves several periods of transition, all of which can affect a young person’s mental health.

The report, which sought the views of young people and school staff, found that many students experience worries about academic demands, living at university, making friends and financial pressures. School is generally viewed as a supportive ‘safe’ environment, with staff and students expresing concerns that students would become just a ‘face in the crowd’ at university or FE college.

Evidence suggests that an increasing number of students are seeking support from counselling and mental health services whilst at FE college or university. However there are a number of barriers to asking for help, including stigma, poor communication about the help available, and a lack of understanding or knowledge amongst staff. Some students face a higher risk, including those with previous mental health difficulties, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, international students and LBGT+ students.

Finding our own way makes nine recommendations for changes across different systems to support students to make successful transitions, including:

  • Universities and FE colleges to be more proactive in offering wellbeing support through a variety of routes
  • Universities and FE colleges should reach out to young people with special educational needs and disabilities, and offer students with mental health issues extended transitions with additional support.
  • An agreed measure of wellbeing should be introduced at universities and FE colleges to help students make an informed choice about where to go
  • The NHS should ensure greater continuity of care for young people who are getting mental health support when they go into further and higher education.

Centre for Mental Health chief executive Sarah Hughes said: “Moving from school to college and university can be a major upheaval in a young person’s life. Most make that transition safely. But some will struggle at an age when mental health difficulties are becoming more common. Our report demonstrates that a whole system approach to student wellbeing is essential to improve those transitions, especially for those at a higher risk.”

A whole system approach to student wellbeing is essential to improve those transitions, especially for those at a higher risk.

Clare Stafford, CEO of the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, said: “The transition to university or FE college can create a perfect storm in the life of a young person, with its combination of a new level of academic pressure, the first move away from family and home, and the challenge of making new friends. For those who are already vulnerable to mental health problems, it can be a particularly dangerous time.

“On a positive note, progress has been made to improve transitions by organisations in the sector, backed up by government policy, and we are already working with key partners to implement the report’s recommendations to help support student mental health and wellbeing.”