The head of Bristol University has said poor mental health among students is the “single biggest public health issue” affecting universities. Dr Hugh Brady, speaking after a spate of suspected suicides at the university, blamed the impact of “constant” social media use for the deterioration in student mental health. The Vice-Chancellor also cited the drive for “perfectionism” on social media, especially on mobile phones, as a factor taking a toll on the well-being of young people.

Phones are sixth digit

“As a parent, as a doctor and as a Vice-Chancellor, I am struck by how that phone is almost the sixth digit of the hand,” Prof Brady said. “They are constantly getting visual and sensory alerts every second or minute of the day. I do worry about the sheer volume of sensory input they are receiving from their mobile devices. “A lot of us are worried about this perfectionism. You are no longer allowed to have a bad day on social media, you have to be seen to be happy.” The university has been rocked by 10 suspected suicides in the past two years, including three in the past month. Prof Brady admitted the spike in the number of suicides and sudden student deaths at Bristol had placed the university in the “spotlight”. But he added: “One student death is a tragedy, to have a number really is of great concern to all of us. We’re all doing everything we can to support our students, but equally trying to understand why it is happening.”

Prevention

Bristol is boosting its efforts to improve mental health among its students, and will also ask them to sign forms that will allow the university to contact their parents if university staff have concerns about their well-being. Peter Burrows, physical activity and health development officer at the university, acts as a mentor to students suffering from poor mental health. He said there had been a spike in referrals over the last 18 months, and blamed increased pressure on students along with a rise in drug and alcohol misuse. “There needs to be focus on prevention as well as treatment,” Mr Burrows said. “Students must understand the need for greater social responsibility. It is not Bristol specific, but there is an increased access to often psychoactive drugs that can have a serious impact on people’s brain chemistry. There is scope for students to help themselves as well.”