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Almost half of UK university students use drink and drugs to cope, survey suggests

By Nina Massey, Press Association Education Correspondent

Almost half of university students use alcohol and recreational drugs to cope with problems in their life, a survey suggests.

The poll of 37,654 people highlights the "alarming" levels of substance misuse and looked at psychological distress and illness, researchers say.

Of those questioned, 9.4% think about self-harming often or all the time, and 50.3% reported some thoughts of self-harm.

Some 42.8% said they are worried all the time.

The survey found that 44.7% use alcohol or recreational drugs to cope with problems in their life - with almost one in 10 (9.5%) doing this often or all the time.

Designed by psychologists and psychiatrists at The Insight Network and distributed through the Dig In database, the survey findings were published in a report on Tuesday.

The summary states that researchers found reports of thoughts of self-harm to be relatively common.

It goes on to say this is almost twice as high as reported rates in 2017, which is an "alarming trend".

"Another alarming finding of the research was the high levels of substance misuse," it continues.

Other findings revealed that a third of those polled (33.9%) had a serious personal, emotional, behavioural or mental health problem which they felt needed professional help.

The survey suggests that despite the common perception that the trigger point for the onset of mental health problems is when students first go to university, there is a second critical transition at the start of the second year.

While 42.8% of the total sample reported they were worried often or all the time, broken down, this was 41% of first years, 48.1% of second years, and 49.1% of third years.

Substance misuse was highest in the second year and third year, according to researchers.

The findings, based on an online survey, suggest 43.2% of first years use substances to cope, 48.2% of second years do so, and for third years it is 47.3%.

Dr Stephen Pereira, consultant psychiatrist and director of the Insight Network, said: "Starting university is a major period of transition in the lives of young people, and although many look forward to it as a positive and exciting time in their life, for some the reality of life as a student does not always mirror expectations.

"Mental health conditions are just as common in young people as they are in the general population and some conditions, which are particularly common among this age range, can have devastating effects if left unacknowledged and untreated."

He added: "It is a cause for concern that one in 10 university students think about harming themselves often or all the time.

"It is important to note that 'thoughts' are not the same as actual intent to self-harm and many who have thoughts of doing so never will. However, the findings are concerning."

Universities minister Chris Skidmore said: "Student mental health is a top priority for me and from my regular visits to our universities across the country, I know this is an issue that they are taking seriously too.

"We know that university-wide approaches are vital in tackling this important issue, which is why the Government is backing the University Mental Health Charter led by Student Minds, which will encourage universities to improve the pastoral care they provide and will set a high standard for mental health support."

John de Pury, mental health policy lead at Universities UK, said: "Mental health and wellbeing is a priority for UK universities.

"This includes ensuring that universities are mentally healthy places to live, work and study as well as providing support or signposting clinical care for students getting into difficulties.

"Universities cannot address these challenges alone and we are working closely with the NHS locally and nationally to make sure that students get the care they need."