University is a time for making new friends, learning new information and embarking on new adventures. However, a growing number of students are simply unable to do this without the unwelcome presence of a mental health disorder. According to a recent NUS survey of 1, 093 students, 78% have experienced mental health issues in the past year and 33% admitted to having suicidal thoughts. Worryingly, more than half (54%) of those surveyed said they did not actively seek help or talk to anyone about their feelings. This begs the question: are universities providing enough support for their students?
Sir Anthony Seldon, vice chancellor of Buckingham University, thinks the rise in students receiving counseling for mental health issues is a “massive problem” and universities have been “negligent” in accepting their pastoral responsibilities. However, with most universities providing adequate counselling services, the problem is often the lack of information on these amenities. If you were to take a walk around any university campus, you will find an abundance of posters telling you who you should vote for in the next student election and why you should join the Biology society but you will seldom come across any information on what to do if you are feeling a little overwhelmed with student life. The hardest part of living with any mental health disorder is often just opening up about it. If universities made that first step a little less daunting, fewer students may feel inclined to suffer in silence.
Students also have to live with fear that their illness won’t be taken seriously. One can only assume that the most common ailments university doctors have to hear on a daily basis are homesickness and hangovers so it is easy to understand why some young people feel as if their mental health is just another appointment in the busy life of a medical professional. However, you would be surprised at how often a doctor has been on the receiving end of a student opening up for the first time about their depression or anxiety. University staff are almost always the first port of call for students with mental health issues. This is due to a number of reasons: as an undergraduate, your main goal is to make new friends and so many people feel that unloading all of this personal information on someone they have just met is completely out of the question. Parents are also usually only reachable by phone call, especially if you live hundreds of miles away, and acknowledging a mental health disorder is understandably a conversation that many would prefer to have face-to-face.
The topic of mental health in students is often overlooked and this is predominantly due to how easily it can be masked. Locking yourself away in your room after a day of back-to-back lectures sounds like a normal response to a busy day but unconsciously excluding yourself from social activities can also be a sign of depression or anxiety. Some students instead opt for the opposite response and try to convince others, including themselves, that they are fine by having a busy social life in the hope that by doing so, nobody will suspect a thing.
So what needs to be done to tackle the rising number of students with mental health problems? More information needs to be readily available for young people to remind them that they are not alone and that many of their friends may also be fighting the same battle every day. There also needs to be a level of understanding and sympathy from members of staff to make students feel as if they are being taken seriously and that their wellbeing does matter to the university as a whole. And perhaps most importantly, students need to be made aware of how beneficial just talking can be. I am not saying that this will be the answer to all of your problems but you will be amazed at how much better you will feel by simply telling someone how you feel and you never know, they might be feeling the exact same way.
Editors note – further information on mental health:
Mind – contains helplines for different confidential services, as well as an A to Z of information on mental health conditions.
Student Minds – has information specifically for students, as well as resources.
Samaritans – an off-the-record, 24 hour service. You can call them as many times as you want, and for as long as you want – you can talk to them about anything.
Many universities also have services in place for students with mental health disorders.
Erin Smith is a second year student at the University of Stirling where she is studying Digital Media. She is an aspiring journalist and self-confessed grammar nerd who splits her time between writing and watching the latest series on Netflix. She also has a passion for music and film and hopes to incorporate this into her future career.