Time to Talk Day, on Thursday 4th February, aims to get the nation talking about mental health. With one in four people affected every year, and many too afraid to talk about it, mental health is an issue that can’t be silenced.
One group who are starting to speak up are students. Whether it’s increased academic demands, financial concerns, competition for employment, or attitudes demanding they strive for higher goals, the pressures of university life are having a negative impact on students’ wellbeing.
At the end of 2015, the National Union of Students (NUS) found that eight out of 10 students experienced mental health issues in the last year while 54 percent of students did not seek support.
This has increased from a previous NUS survey in 2013, which found that 20 percent of students considered themselves to have mental health problems, while 26 percent did not talk to anyone about their mental distress.
— YoungMinds (@YoungMindsUK) January 9, 2016
For many, it’s one that has followed them throughout their lives and will continue into their future careers if they do not receive the help they need. From over 1,000 students surveyed, a third also said they had had suicidal thoughts, with this increasing to 55% for those who did not identify as heterosexual.
The Stand Up Kid – Time to Change.
For me, my own challenges with mental health started in my first year of university. Initially, I struggled alone refusing to admit there was a problem, before a close friend shared her experiences and convinced me to talk to my GP. This led to a diagnosis and treatment plan for depression and anxiety, including medication and sessions with a Wellbeing Advisor at my university.
While the need to care for my mental wellbeing is something that I will always have, I was lucky to have the support of friends, family and professionals from the beginning. For many students, there is a lack of awareness surrounding the support that is available, with a third of NUS respondents saying they would not know where to get mental health support at their college or university if they needed it, and 40 percent being nervous about the support they receive from their institution.
Shedding light from within
In order to further examine the state of student wellbeing within universities, student media has played a crucial role by providing a platform for investigation and for students to voice their experiences and concerns.
Last year, Trident Media, based at the University of Hertfordshire, ran a survey receiving 100 responses, which could be for respondents to share their own experiences or on behalf of someone else.
Of 79 respondents, mental health issues affected 42 daily and 20 others a few times a week. One University of Hertfordshire student said:
“…I have suffered depression for 10 years and never told anyone (after my parents ignored me and told me I was imagining it, aged around 9) because I don’t want people to think I’m weak. I just keep pretending I’m fine, even when my grades suffer or I can’t get out of bed or I just want to break down and cry.”
Mental health can have a staggering, and for some disabling, effect, with 72 of Trident Media’s respondents reporting that their student life was affected by their mental health. This could be academically, such as attending lectures or completing assignments, socially, or in many other aspects that form the student experience.
Robyn McCue, writing for The Gown, the independent newspaper at Queens University in Belfast, said:
“When I started University, I had hoped that things would turn around. They didn’t. I struggled to make it out of bed and into lectures. I felt like I couldn’t make friends as easily as everyone else and I panicked any time there was silence in a conversation.”
McCue advised others to speak to someone:
“Don’t suffer in silence…Don’t feel that you don’t deserve help because you’ve convinced yourself that everyone around you deserves help and you don’t. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s not weak. It’s brave.”
Where to turn for mental health support
The first step in seeking support can be as simple as talking to someone, whether it’s a friend, family member, doctor, or someone at your university. This can open the doors to a range of available support, enabling you to find out the cause of your concerns, possible treatments and coping mechanisms. It can make a world of difference just knowing that you are not alone and that things will get better.
Personally, I formed a Study Needs Agreement under the advice of a Disability Advisor. This allowed a simple way to break the ice with new lecturers in order for them to understand the difficulties I may face due to my physical and mental health. Most importantly, it meant that there was a support system in place when adjustments were needed, ranging from additional mentoring, excused absences, or the spacing of deadlines.
The support available at the university proved to be much more valuable to me than externally, such as failed attempts at cognitive behavioural therapy through the NHS. I felt that this was due to a level of understanding about the specific demands of student life, which were questioned and challenged by someone outside of the institution.
At the University of Manchester, the Mancunion reported on the increasing number of stressed students, with a university spokesperson revealing that the increased number of students and staff using welfare and wellbeing services “is likely to be due to many factors, including the higher profile of our Counselling Service and, happily, the reduced stigma association with using such services.”
At Hertfordshire, more of Trident Media’s respondents had used services outside of the university than those available on campus, with many not seeking help at all. For those who shared details of their experiences, the responses were mixed.
Some neglect to seek the help they need due to stigma surround mental health:
“I knew I had some problems but didn’t want to talk about them all the time. I was hoping that ignoring that I had a problem would make it go away.”
However, another respondent said:
“…It took a long time until I felt able to seek help. Discovering the support available at the university was one of the best things I could have done…I’m not sure I would be graduating this year without them!”
— UHStudentLife (@UHStudentLife) September 4, 2015
Echoing this sentiment was Clare Phelan, a University of Kent at Canterbury student, who told Inquire:
“Without my school’s office, Medical Centre, Student Wellbeing and Early Intervention teams, I would probably not be here writing this article today. I was fortunate enough to have truly loving and supportive parents and great friends, the aforementioned University’s bodies are equally life-saving support groups.”
Everyone’s experience is different, and I would urge anyone seeking help to try a variety of options. If something doesn’t work out, that doesn’t mean you are beyond help. Looking after your mental health is just as important as your physical health, and it’s not a journey that comes to an end overnight.
Taking time away from university
Writer Charlotte Mullin offered advice for fellow students struggling with anxiety or other negative feelings at university and said:
“I just want you to know that it’s okay. It’s okay to have relapses and bad days. It’s okay to take time for yourself to recover…No matter what happens, hopefully your experiences will shape you into a better, happier person, and you’ll look back on all the hard times and feel proud of yourself for making it through.”
Image: Char Mullin for TridentMedia.org
Mullin also looked at the crucial aspect that university is not for everyone. Your health and wellbeing should always be top priority. If that means taking time out of your studies, changing courses or institutions, or taking a different path altogether, these are all valid options.
It’s important to make the decisions that are right for you, and not feel pressured or shamed into something that could be damaging to your wellbeing, and it’s equally important that universities offer the necessary support during this time.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. In 2014 The Oxford Student investigated those students who had suspended their studies for mental health reasons. They found that a “significant proportion” of students were dissatisfied with the level of support provided during their period of suspension.
A study the following year surveyed 170 students, 36 percent of which said they had used mental health and welfare support at the university. Of these students, The Oxford Student reported that:
“A staggering 31 per cent said that this service was not effective, with complaints of long waiting times and a ‘conveyer belt service’.”
Mental health and masculinity
Whether there are concerns about access to support services or the stigma faced in seeking it, this can be greater for some students than others.
Exposé at Exeter University ran a mental health themed issue, which included a focus on the concern that many men feel that they face more stigma and are ashamed to seek the help they need. This was highlighted through the anonymously shared story which said:
“Male sufferers often fail to seek help for fear of ridicule or intimidation, and often allow their condition to deteriorate to the point where the consequences last a lifetime.”
“I share this story today to raise awareness and hopefully banish some of the stigma surrounding male mental health. Men are just as vulnerable to depression as anybody else, and although painful seeking help is an essential part of the recovery process. I would urge anyone suffering not to shut themselves away, but confide in someone they trust, and, if they feel comfortable, get seen by a professional.”
Within the issue, Exposé also shared the results of their own survey. With over 300 responses, 34.5 percent of students revealed that they suffered from a mental health condition, while 45.9 per cent of males saw their gender as a barrier to mental health support, citing the pressure to ‘man up’.
These concerns were also raised by Daniel Green, for The Badger at the University of Sussex, who said:
“I went without the help that I clearly needed mainly because of the stigma attached to depression and suicidal thoughts. Hearing others describe suicide as ‘selfish’ or ‘cowardly’ only served to make me feel worse about myself and more isolated…In addition, the culture of masculinity in our society made me feel that it would be wrong for me to reach out, and that I should ‘man up’, ‘don’t cry’ and just ‘suck it up’.”
Steps in the right direction
The Badger also reported that more students at the University of Sussex are seeking counselling help for mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety than academic issues. In response, the University has “shown its commitment to offering support for students who suffer from mental illness by raising awareness and increasing the quality of service available” and by increasing the number of one-on-one counselling appointments.
In 2014 Impact reported on the FOI data published by The Guardian, which revealed that the number of people seeking counselling at the University of Nottingham had risen by 17.92 per cent since 2008, following a national trend with the number of students seeking mental health support more than doubling at some institutions.
The following year, The University of Nottingham made commitments to raising mental health awareness in line with World Mental Health Day. This included collaborations with sabbatical officers, Nightline, Mind, Student Minds and the LGBT and Disabled Students Network, including the #littlethings campaign.
— Uni of Nottingham (@UniofNottingham) October 10, 2015
Equal Opportunities and Welfare Officer Sarah Pickup told Impact:
“For me, awareness of mental health and the impact it can have on our students needs to become ingrained into the University culture.”
Moving to Warwick Student’s Union, who declared in October plans to make mental health issues a priority for the coming academic year, The Boar reported on the plans of sabbatical officers behind the initiative on mental health.
With the increasing demand for services across the country, we hope to see many other universities following suit and placing a high priority on mental health. Chances are you’re already thinking of your own mental health or that of someone you know, so take this opportunity to fight the stigma and talk about it.
Each conversation can help raise awareness of the growing mental health issues facing students and help drive universities to offer access to the safe and reliable support services that every student deserves.
Take 5 on Time to Talk Day – Time to Change.
If you would like to share your experiences or advice for students facing mental health concerns, please leave a comment below or tweet us @KettleMag!
For more from KettleMag on mental health:
How to care for someone with mental illness
Top 5 apps for managing your mental health
The Importance of taking Mental Health seriously
Taking care of your mental health at university
Mindfulness, meditation and mental wellbeing