Student Mental Health in Modern Britain
How did student mental health come to be seen as one of the most urgent problems facing British universities? This book charts the remarkable rise of concern about student mental health in Britain since the close of the Second World War. This is a story that reveals hitherto undiscovered connections between structural changes in higher education and the transformation of British emotional cultures, but it is also a deeply human story: a story in which campaigning students and medical professionals worked across universities and organisations to demand more humane institutions. I argue that the way that these arguments were presented and seized upon shines new light on ideas about education and social value, economic investment, and social mobility in Britain. This research has important implications for universities, students, and policymakers: establishing the lineage of concern about student mental health debunks the suggestion that today’s students are a ‘snowflake generation’ unable to cope with the challenges of higher education; rather, it shows that higher education has long struggled to be a healthy environment for young people.
The book locates the emergence of anxiety about student mental health in post-war reconstruction, when the tiny group of young people who ascended to university were held to constitute an elite cohort of future leaders, and therefore any threat to their mental health was perceived by university doctors as a threat to the stability of the nation. It then moves forward to demonstrate that after the expansion of higher education in the 1960s this anxiety spread and became rooted in economic concern about perceived returns on public investment; the idea of ‘student wastage’ took hold. I then use oral history to uncover the personal stories of campaigning students, putting these alongside articles in student newspapers to show that during the 1960s students became increasingly vocal about their emotional experiences and began to demand more psychological care from their institutions. I then trace this concern forward to the 1990s and the aspiration to open higher education up further, and finally to the introduction of student fees, which shaped apprehensions about the vocal, entitled (working-class) student-as-consumer. By examining the emergence of anxiety about student mental health as a major topic of public concern alongside these key structural changes, I shed new light on connections between the emotional climate of universities and resistance to the mechanisms of social mobility.