WARNING: This article is about mental health and may be distressing for some readers.

At least 11 university students have died by suspected suicide in New Zealand since 2015, prompting a shake-up of campus mental health services.

The figures, released to the Herald under the Official Information Act, show the University of Otago had the highest number of suspected suicides by students, with four last year, and one each in 2015 and 2016.

Only one was a first year student; the rest were spread over second, third, fourth and postgraduate study.

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At Auckland University of Technology there were two suspected suicides last year, a postgraduate student and another in their final year.

The University of Waikato reported two suspected suicides during the past three years and the University of Canterbury confirmed one student suicide in the same timeframe.

Lincoln, Victoria and Auckland universities said they did not hold information on suspected suicides and Massey University did not respond.

The figures come at the same time as the first study of its kind in New Zealand showed 56 per cent of tertiary students considered dropping out because of stress, anxiety and depression.

It prompted the New Zealand Union of Students' Associations, which commissioned the Kei Te Pai Report, to claim tertiary students are failing to reach their potential because of the mental health crisis.

The University of Otago was the only one to report formal complaints about its mental health services, a total of nine since 2015.

Student health services director Dr Kim Ma'ia'l said the university undertook a review in 2016 that resulted in a broadened and deepened investment in mental health services.

That included recruiting more mental health nurses, social workers, counsellors, occupational therapists and psychologists.

He said the new team had experienced a 57 per cent increase in direct contact with students compared to last year.

At the Auckland University of Technology there had been a 55 per cent increase in counselling and mental health appointments in the semester one pre-exam period of May this year compared to the same period last year.

The university, which has implemented a free resilience app available to all students, said there was a number of triggers associated with the increasing numbers.

These included campus life stress, young people spending less time with friends and more time on social media, and more students seeking support for identity issues.

Public awareness campaigns working to de-stigmatise mental health were also credited with more students accessing services.

At the University of Canterbury, where 15,000 students were enrolled, there was an anecdotal increase in students presenting with mental health issues.

Staff put the increase down to higher levels of distress following the Canterbury earthquakes, feeling lonely, disconnected or experiencing bullying, issues with housing and poverty, stress, and overuse of electronic devices.

The University of Waikato said the increase in student body diversity including international students far from support networks contributed to student stress.

Social pressures, the uncertainty of the job market and future prospects, earlier puberty, changes to parenting practices and a decrease in mental health resources in the community were also reasons for increasing access of mental health services.

The seven universities reported comprehensive health services, some of which had been upgraded to cater for the increasing mental health demand.

Lincoln University said it had established a new wellbeing co-ordinator role and was working with Universities New Zealand which was undertaking a nationwide project focusing on mental health.

The project was in the process of establishing a steering committee with representatives across all universities.

Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan said a university was the size of a small town and had all the same kinds of issues, including those of mental distress.

Offering hope and answers

Corinda Taylor, chairwoman of Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust, believes student mental health services could do better. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Corinda Taylor, chairwoman of Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust, believes student mental health services could do better. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Dunedin woman Corinda Taylor, whose son 20-year-old son Ross Taylor took his own life in 2013, recently opened the Hope Centre in the city to offer support to people with mental health problems.

Taylor, whose complaint to the Health and Disability Commissioner over her son's lack of care by Southern District Health Board was upheld, said university student health services were limited.

She said if a student qualified for publicly funded counselling they were only entitled to six sessions, which wasn't enough.

"Then you have to pay but the majority of students cannot afford to pay for private counselling."

She was concerned about follow up and treatment plans for those discharged back into the community without a medical diagnosis.

The Hope Centre, which opened on June 1, provided peer support to help people navigate the mental health system and also the aftermath including following an attempted suicide or for bereaved families.

Chairwoman of the Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust, Taylor said university could be a pressure cooker situation for young people and for every suicide, she estimated up to 25 attempted suicides went unreported.

Waikato District Health Board interim chief executive Derek Wright, who has more than 40 years experience working in mental health, believes children are not learning the skills they need to navigate adult life.

"Our kids now are growing up without resilience. There's no competitive sports at school. No one wins, so everybody gets a medal in the running race, well real life's not like that."

Wright said instead of being prepared children can't handle the pressure and stress of life as a grown up the way previous generations could.

"The problem is they're managed through school because we don't really have an exam system anymore and they get to university and start failing their assignments and exams and go 'I dunno how to cope with this'."

He accepted 1 per cent of the population have a psychotic illness, but blamed increasing mental health problems on social media and drugs and alcohol.

"I'm not suggesting it was all perfect when I grew up but we didn't have social media. We didn't have 100 people commenting on what you think, or what you say."

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your local GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland (available 24/7)
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 ,free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat.
NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
SAMARITANS – 0800 726 666.