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Social media is causing a global mental health crisis among young people, according to the chief of a university hit by suicides among students.

Hugh Brady, vice-chancellor of Bristol, said the pressure to appear ‘perfect’ all the time online was causing anxiety and depression.

He said social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram have become a ‘burden’ for youngsters, who feel they have to pretend to be ‘happy’ all the time.

Seven students at Bristol have killed themselves in less than 18 months – with three doing so within weeks of each other.

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Speaking for the first time since the tragedies, Professor Brady said they were symptomatic of a wider issue. He said many other universities are also seeing a rise in those with mental illness, with record referral rates to student counselling services.

‘Unfortunately, this is a global issue,’ he said. ‘If you look over the last five to eight years across the UK, but equally in Canada and the US, the number of students seeking help for and declaring mental health issues has almost tripled.’

Asked what is causing the younger generation more stress, he said many felt the world was becoming more uncertain. He said youngsters often worried about political turmoil, student debt and global warming.

‘But the burden of social media may well be the straw that has broken the camel’s back and particularly this issue of what some people refer to as perfectionism,’ he said.

Professor Brady, who has 22-year-old triplets who are students, said he could see what his own children gained from social media, but he also understood the pressures.

‘It’s not OK to have a bad day,’ he said. ‘In the world of social media, you have to look like you’re happy even when you are not.’

He said the university would be talking to the student body about exploring the potential benefits of a ‘detox from social media, in the way we’ve detoxed in the past from substances’.

Five students took their own lives in a single academic year at Bristol, followed by a further two deaths the year after.

‘It’s always difficult’, Professor Brady told the Guardian, adding that there was further concern over attempted suicide rates and a ‘huge’ increase in referrals to counselling services within universities. ‘That’s common to all universities, so something has changed,’ he said.

He was speaking ahead of the launch of a new model of pastoral care at the university, which has been drawn up to address the growing mental health needs of students. This will include spending an additional £1million annually on workers who can support students and spot early signs of distress.