This is a happy time at universities around the world. The end of summer term, the end of exams and for many students, the end of university life as they prepare for graduation ceremonies. But for some families, it's not such a pleasant time. Suicide is the leading cause of death for young adults in the UK. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, at least 95 British university students took their own lives in the academic year ending July 2017. In one university alone, 11 students committed suicide in 2016. More recent cases have left parents, university staff and fellow students all asking whether university authorities could do more – and what “doing more” might actually involve.
As chancellor of the University of Kent, when I see thousands of students graduating every year with a degree certificate in hand, I see the future. The idea of that future being extinguished prematurely is extremely upsetting. I am sure when I was a student, there were some who committed suicide but I can only recall hearing of one case. What I do remember, however, is that some fellow students sought help for mental health issues. You can understand why. An 18-year-old, after spending years in the relative safety of school, is suddenly faced with moving out of the family home, often to a strange city, where he or she knows no one and suddenly has to live with strangers in shared accommodation. Then there is a challenging university curriculum to contend with and perhaps expectations from parents back home to do well, especially since university courses cost so much. It is easy to feel lonely and isolated.
A few months ago, I met two young women who told me that receiving help in the form of counselling prevented them from dropping out of university altogether. They both said they were daunted by the idea of failing their exams. One said she was the first in her family to go to university and felt unspoken pressure to do well. Both their stories had happy endings. Both graduated with excellent degrees and both have now gone on to make their mark in the world.
But in other conversations, students have told me that social media can make a sense of isolation seem even worse. This seems odd at first. You might assume that social media is, well, social. Or is it sometimes anti-social? If you are shy or insecure and see on social media that others are having great fun, you might feel isolated and unhappy. One student gave the example of finding yourself excluded from the WhatsApp group that you know your acquaintances are using. "You think, what's wrong with me?" he said. A reliance on social media meant some of his fellow students were spending more time alone in their bedrooms checking their mobile phones than taking part in active student clubs, sports and hobbies. Self-perpetuated isolation can become a downward spiral.
This is all anecdotal, of course. But a recently published study on an unnamed US university claimed students with an "app addiction" – that is, those who spend the most time on their phones – are more likely to have mental health issues, suffer from anxiety, have low self-esteem and lower exam grades. The US student survey asked students if they felt "fretful or impatient without their smartphone" and if they suffered physical problems such as blurred vision and light-headedness. Meanwhile there have been other reports of some businesses increasingly enforcing strict guidelines on smartphone usage among employees. Some ban their use during working hours and insist phones are held in lockers until break or lunchtime.
Humans are prone to technophobic panics. Steam trains, motorcars and the invention of television frightened those of faint heart in previous centuries. The issues of loneliness and isolation are problems of human societies and institutions, not machines.
Like many readers, I would find it difficult to be without my phone since it is also my alarm clock, map, travel guide, radio, news source, recording device, camera, email generator and social organiser. Occasionally, I even use it to make telephone calls. Moreover the American student research might link heavy smartphone usage to mental health issues but a link does not necessarily mean phones and social media actually cause depression and loneliness. It could be the other way round – that lonely and isolated people more often seek comfort from phones and social media to make up for a lack of real world human contact.
The British mental health charity Mind has helpful advice on its website about loneliness and depression, seeing it as a circular problem. Loneliness and isolation affect mental health; mental health issues can make people feel more lonely and isolated. But there is some good news. Universities are caring institutions. They are increasingly aware of, and taking action on, the mental health issues which can lead to suicide. British statistics show that boys and men made up two-thirds of recorded suicides of students over the age of 10. It's long been clear that men do not talk enough about their physical health. They need to be more open about their mental health too.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author, presenter and chancellor of the University of Kent