Responses to the effects of stress: the growing importance of promoting student wellbeing

The endemic nature of student stress and its potentially negative effects on student health and effective learning would indicate that strategies to tackle this problem should be a central feature of the student support services of all good universities.

In fact, a cursory review on most UK university student services shows that advice and support which specifically addresses the adverse effects of stress across the student body is patchy at best. One reason for this is that student health services are extremely hard-pressed as demands for their services have increased[i] while budgets have come under pressure. Providing one-to-one counselling services is costly and time-consuming and most counselling services can only hope to support a small fraction of the student body in this way. Addressing the negative effects of stress across the whole student body may therefore seem like a daunting prospect to over-stretched counselling services. At the same time, however, there is growing awareness of the need to address the needs of student holistically rather than dividing them into two distinct categories of ‘well’ and ‘ill’. The idea that universities generally and student health services specifically need to think more holistically about ‘student wellbeing’ is now well-established.

This change in approach has the potential to provide for a more comprehensive and effective framework in which all students can take advantage of a range of support services to help them to deal with stress so that it does not impact adversely on both their learning and happiness. It is notable that a number of university counselling services have now been rebranded as wellbeing services. This change is not simply cosmetic but reflects a change of approach to student support in which there is a serious attempt to address the routine effects of stress experienced by students who are not suffering from any recognisable mental health problem.

If the goal of promoting student wellbeing is to be taken seriously, one element of this is to develop stress reduction programmes which can be offered to groups of students as part of the tools they need to learn to maintain their health, happiness and productivity in much the same way as they are encouraged to engage in sporting activities or to eat a healthy diet. Mindfulness training falls squarely within this approach to student well-being. The change in approach, is important in encouraging students who are suffering in silence to seek help, given that the NUS survey found that:

‘When asked what issues students felt prevented them from asking for personal  support, an overwhelming 80% reported  that the stigma attached to mental illness  would act as a barrier in approaching someone for support’ (NUS, 2010).

If we accept that stress is a normal part of student life, tackling its potentially damaging effects on learning and wellbeing should no longer be addressing by expecting individual students to refer themselves to health services at the point when stress starts to impact seriously on their mental health, but instead should now be embedded within mainstream student support services with no greater stigma than joining a social club or a sports team. The consequence of this shift will be to give all students the opportunity to learn strategies to deal with the effects of stress as it arises in the normal course of their lives in the same was that other enhanced learning initiatives equip them to deal with the challenges of living away from home, managing their finances or keeping fit.

The Mindfulness for Students programme (MFS) seeks to seeks to promote this goal by offering a coherent and accessible programme of training to all students to help minimise the negative effects of stress as and when they occur. It starts from the premise that the increasing pressures on all students require a good university to provide tools to help them manage the normal stresses of student life effectively so as to be able to work in a way which is enjoyable, creative and productive.



The extent and impact of student stress

Stress has been described as a modern epidemic and is the second most commonly reported work-related illness.[i] Increases have been reported in a wide variety of groups and occupations and higher education is no exception. Evidence suggests that levels of student stress have risen significantly over the last thirty years or so.[ii] These findings confirm the anecdotal experience of many of those teaching in universities and working in student health services who are told by students about the impact of stress on their ability to concentrate and focus effectively. Moreover, there are particular reasons why stress can pose more problems for students than for other groups and occupations. The fact that academic study requires intensive and sustained intellectual performance throughout a programme of study which may last many years means that there is relatively little leeway for students to ease off when they are affected by the normal stresses and strains of life. Difficult periods which reduce a student’s capacity to work effectively can quite easily spiral into a cycle of anxiety affecting performance in turn leading to greater anxiety. This problem is not new and was described by student health professionals in the 1960s:

‘Whereas an engineer’s apprentice or a farmer’s boy can suffer the normal depressions and anxieties of growing up without his employment being much affected, it is impossible for a student to suffer even transitory disturbances without his work suffering. He then begins to drop behind his colleagues; this produces a secondary anxiety which in turn also adversely affects his study and makes his problems worse in a vicious circle’.[iii]

If students were particularly susceptible to the negative effects of stress on their work sixty years ago, the more competitive and demanding environment in which most students now study and the challenges faced in securing employment after graduation have inevitably compounded the danger that the effects of a short period of stress can escalate into a major problem which undermines a student’s capacity to work effectively. It is not surprising that the 2010 NUS National Union of Students study on stress described found very high level of  ‘silent’ suffering.



[ii] TwengeJM. , GentileB, DeWallN, Ma D,  LacefieldK,  Schurtz, D R. ‘Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938–2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI’ Clinical Psychology ReviewVolume 30, Issue 2, March 2010, Pages 145–154; Misra, R and McKean, M (2000) ‘College students’ academic stress and its relation to their anxiety, time management, and leisure satisfaction’. American Journal of Health Studies, Wntr, 2000  Volume: 16  Issue: 1; National Union of Students Scotland (2010), Silently Stressed: A Survey into Student Mental Wellbeing at:

[iii] Malleson, N (1962) The Influence of Emotional Factors on Achievement in University Education Reproduced in: Society for Research into Higher Education, ‘Students in Need’ 1978.