Analysis

Stress and anxiety driving nursing students to seek support

Yet a Nursing Standard investigation reveals many universities do not monitor the reasons students seek help from support services.

Almost one in three UK nursing students who seek support from university services have anxiety, stress or depression, an exclusive Nursing Standard investigation reveals.


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Of the 2,713 nursing students who contacted university support services, including counselling, in the past year, 818 were experiencing one of the three conditions.

In comparison, about one in seven medical students, (358 of 2,682) who contacted university services, needed help for anxiety, stress or depression, figures for the year from April 2016 to March 2017 show.

1 in 3

nurses who seek support from university services do so for anxiety, stress or depression

Unmonitored mental health issues

Yet our investigation shows many universities do not monitor the conditions that students present – even among those going into caring professions with a known prevalence of mental health issues.

Responses to freedom of information requests made to 58 UK universities reveal:

  • About one in three universities (34% or 20/58) do not keep figures on nursing students who seek help from student support or counselling services.
  • Almost one in 12 universities (9% or 5/58) do not keep numbers for how many students from any discipline seek help or counselling.
  • More than half (59% or 34/58) of universities do not record whether nursing students seek help for anxiety, stress or depression.

The findings come as part of a wider investigation by Nursing Standard that found one in ten nurses who took sick leave in the year to April as a result of anxiety, stress or depression.

Willing to speak up

Similar to NHS organisations' responses to our investigation, universities with higher proportions of students with the conditions say this reflects the students' good self-care and willingness to seek help from available services.

One in ten nursing students (74 of 774) at Cardiff University asked for support with anxiety, stress or depression last year, analysis of the data shows.

The university says these are students who have self-referred for one-to-one counselling or well-being appointments, for challenges 'from feeling lonely to complex emotional or psychological difficulties'.

Liverpool University has a clinical psychology service specifically for students from the schools of health sciences, medicine and dentistry – from which nine nursing students and 112 medical students sought help for anxiety, stress or depression last year. Nursing students account for about 1% of all those who used the service.

9%

of universities do not know how many students of any discipline seek help from them

Psychological support 

Liverpool University senior clinical psychologist Linda Steadman has run the institution’s psychological support service for student practitioners, which is separate to the university’s counselling service, for the past nine years.

She says: 'Working with patients who are suffering and vulnerable or at the end of life is emotionally demanding. Furthermore, students may face situations on placement with patients similar to those they have experienced in their own lives.'

She adds that the loss of the nursing bursary could mean some students are experiencing financial hardship.

Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen is another institution with a low proportion of its nursing students (0.86% or 16 out of 1,855 students) seeking help for anxiety, stress or depression. However, about half of all nursing students who sought help or counselling support from the university regarding other issues were also experiencing these conditions.

Student life director Filippo Antoniazzi says the university was recognised in the 2017 Times Higher Education UK Student Experience Survey as being the top university in Scotland for academic and personal student support.

34

UK universities do not record whether nursing students seek help for anxiety, stress or depression

‘The university has a range of well-being services on offer, such as our student counselling and well-being centre, where students can receive support and talk over issues including anxiety and depression, adjusting to university life, relationship difficulties and bereavement.’

Mindfulness

The school of nursing and midwifery also works closely with NHS Grampian and local health services and has provided well-subscribed mindfulness sessions for all students. It also runs monthly screenings of films with a mental health theme followed by a discussion between students, staff and mental health service users.

But even those universities with extensive services know there is more to be done to support those preparing to enter stressful professions.

At Liverpool University, Dr Steadman says: 'We are currently working with schools to identify opportunities for a universal approach for all health practitioners aimed at self-care and prevention, which we would see as essential for our healthcare professionals of the future.'

'Self-care advice makes nursing students more willing to seek help'

Mental health nursing courses have a strong emphasis on ‘self-care’ resulting in more students than average seeking help.

Abertay University in Dundee says this is the reason why 12% of its nursing students asked for support with either anxiety, stress or depression last year.

The university says the figures – 15 of 128 nursing students sought help for the conditions – demonstrates the students ‘take seriously their commitment to patient care by looking after their own mental health so they can care effectively for their patients suffering from mental health difficulties or crises’.

It adds that any comparisons with other universities should be ‘treated with extreme caution’.

‘Given the nature of our nursing programme and its focus on mental health, our students are better equipped to identify when they need support,’ a university spokesperson said.

‘Our teaching staff remind students of the importance of self-care on a regular basis, given the client group (those suffering chronic or acute mental health conditions) they are working with. 

‘Indeed, students being able to recognise when they need support ensures that they comply with best practice.’

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