A National Union of Students (NUS) study conducted in May 2013 shows that one in five students consider themselves to have a mental health problem.
Whilst this figure is staggering, it is not hard to understand why so many students struggle at university. For most, going to university means leaving home for the first time, often hundreds of miles away from friends and family, into shared housing with strangers in a completely new place, whom they often expect to make life-long friends with in the first few weeks of uni life. On top of this, students are thrown into studies with reading and assignments at a higher level than they are used to, and have to learn how to live by themselves, including how to budget costs of food, books and nights out in fresher’s week on a student loan.
NUS welfare advice president, Colum McGuire, states: “Students face a particular set of challenges that can leave some struggling to cope…Students are under tremendous pressure to succeed academically, to maintain a healthy social life, and many that don’t fit into the traditional 18 year old just-left-home model also face difficulty juggling their university life with other commitments.”
Many students can feel very isolated and anxious in this environment. Habiba Khanom, a third-year student at City University London, suffered from an eating disorder, depression and social anxiety. She says: “I felt like I had no one to talk to. I found it hard to make friends because I felt like if I told someone, they wouldn’t want to be friends with me.”
This is a common problem, however student’s mental health is not receiving the attention it deserves. This may be partly due to the stigma which still exists around mental health, and the fact that many simply don’t understand the complexities of mental health problems.
In addition, I believe there are stereotypes about students which only serve to undermine and trivialise mental health problems. For example the idea that all student’s are lazy, eat crap food, and go out every night of the week. But many will not understand that university can be overwhelming. When landed with 3 deadlines in the same week, some cannot cope, and will bury their head in the sand rather than cracking on, earning the label of ‘lazy’. In regard to food, many students may eat poorly due to both a lack of income, and a lack of knowledge about what to cook and how to cook it. And the idea that students go out drinking every night – perhaps many students do go out a lot at university, but this is actively encouraged by the Student’s Union to embrace uni life, e.g. ‘fresher’s week’, to socialise and make new friends, and this is combined with issues of peer pressure. In an attempt to balance work and social life, students often therefore have to sacrifice sleep, which I believe may significantly contribute to poor mental health.
Perhaps rather than criticising students and their way of life, we need to change views and look at why student’s can’t cope, why they aren’t eating or sleeping properly, or why they drink so much.
In addition, whilst most universities have counselling and support services in place, these are often inadequate. One anonymous student says it took him six weeks to get an appointment with his university’s counselling service, and another says the lack of emotional support she received from her university left her feeling “afraid of asking anyone for help entirely”.
Chris Leaman, policy manager at Young Minds, says: “Students feel that universities only care about the results and they’re not investing in their welfare. Some universities have not had a clear policy and route to help students out with mental health”.
Campaigns such as Time to Change aims to change the stigma around mental health and encourage people to speak out, and these campaigns are spreading across UK universities.
In addition, Nightline, a helpline which provides emotional support to students, is present in 90 UK universities and colleges.
However, 90% is simply not enough, as it means 10% of universities are completely failing students.
Furthermore, the NUS study into mental health shows that only one in ten of students surveyed went to the university authorities for help, despite one in five students feeling they have a mental health problem. Therefore whilst we may be advancing in discussing mental health and tackling stigma, we still have a way to go.
In order to ensure students feel supported, we must raise awareness of mental health and counselling services, and eradicate the taboo and shame around using these services, so no student has to face mental health problems alone.