“You’ll love university – it’s the best years of your life!”
There isn’t an undergraduate in the UK who wasn’t waved off to university with those words ringing in their ears; and yet students are suffering from more and more mental health problems with each passing year.
Like most, I headed to uni with a churning mixture of nerves, anticipation and excitement. The next three years looked to be incredible: I was studying my perfect course at the university I’d always dreamed of attending, the people I’d chatted with online seemed wonderful, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into student journalism. I had my worries but was sure that once I arrived everything would click.
It did – for a while. But over time, and without any real discernible reason, my confidence and mental health began to erode. And so, on my first night back in York after Easter, I found myself curled up tight on my bed suffering my fifth panic attack of the previous three weeks and wishing for a way out. Late that night I sent a desperate email to Open Door, the University of York’s student support service.
A recent report by York revealed that 12% of students made use of the service in the year 2014-15, and that evidence suggests that the number of students seen will reach 2000 by the end of this academic year. What’s more, 12 ambulance call-outs to the York campus between January and February 2016 were responding to self-harm or suicide attempts amongst students; that number makes up 50% of all call-outs during that one month period.
I’m not calling out my university here – my experience with the Open Door service was positive, although this isn’t the case across the board. The issue goes much further than York; the same report, produced by the University’s Student Mental Ill-health Task Group, also investigated national trends. It noted that there is evidence that more than 25% of UK students are experiencing ‘clinically-recognisable mental ill-health’ at any one time.
The most common disorders include anxiety and depression. The York report highlights perfectionism as the ‘main presenting problem’ for students accessing support, but also lists notoriously high student debt, increasing levels of unemployment and pressures due to social media sites and apps such as YikYak as significant causes of mental health difficulties, alongside academic pressure and loss of immediate support networks.
For most, problems are caused by a combination of these. In my case, it was the overriding pressure of what university was ‘supposed’ to be: it could never live up to those expectations, and nor could I. But in reality the whole process – from moving away from your family into clinical student accommodation with complete strangers to dealing with higher academic expectations, getting to know a brand-new environment and managing personal finances – is an enormous and difficult change. And at university, we’re expected to deal with it overnight.
Naturally some people find the transition easy, but I suspect that this is much less common than it seems. The people this year who told me I always seem “so put together” and “so happy” and “so in control” couldn’t see the weekly panic attacks; they didn’t know about the food I stored in my room so I could eat during the day while I avoided my kitchen until my housemates had gone to bed.
I’m not an extreme case; there are thousands needlessly suffering just like me across the country. Universities need to do their part. Between 2011 and 2015, the demand for York’s Open Door service rose by 46% while funding increased by just 9% (adjusted for inflation). Student mental health is an ever-growing issue, and it’s time that institutions made a real commitment to supporting their students.
At the same time, though, there are issues with how the university experience is presented in the media and online. It’s easy to be taken in by the depiction of university as nothing but drunken one-night stands with the odd lecture in between, but clubbing isn’t necessarily everyone’s favourite pastime, and if you’re one of those people it’s easy to feel like an outsider from Freshers’ Week onwards. For graduates it’s all too easy to rose-tint those memories of new-found freedom in ‘On This Day’ posts on Facebook.
Why do we put so much pressure on students to have the time of their lives at university? It just isn’t possible for everyone, and those who don’t feel like failures. We need to help young people feel more prepared before they leave home, not just in terms of how to cook or use a washing machine, but in how to look after their mental wellbeing. And we need to tell them that it’s natural to find this transition difficult, and make sure they know what to do when that happens.
Let’s stop telling young people that university will be ‘the best years of their life’ – for most it’s never as simple as that. Instead, be supportive: let them know it might be hard, and ensure they know what to do on a bad day. Check that they know who to talk to if they’re finding things difficult, and that they know how to contact their university’s support services if they need it. Above all, let them know that it’s okay to struggle; they’re never alone, and, with the right support, things really can get better.