8 out of 10 students have reported that they have experienced mental health issues over the course of 2015, according to a survey conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS). Whilst this statistic is extremely troubling in itself, it is unfortunately just a small detail of a much bigger issue. NHS England have said that three quarters of people with mental health issues have received zero report at all - despite the fact that a third of respondents to the NUS survey saying that they have experienced suicidal thoughts. It was through examining statistics such as these, that I started to see a much bigger picture forming — there is a mental health crisis in our universities. That got me thinking, why is there such a crisis in our universities and how can we stop it?
I spoke with Sean Walsh, who is a third year Journalism student at Portsmouth University on why he felt that so many university students suffered from mental health issues: “I think university students are particularly prone to mental health problems because it is such a massive step up from anything we have ever done before, you are thrown in at the deep end and it does feel like its sink or swim, it is easier to become isolated and feel alone than when you are at home”.
Sean Walsh is not alone in finding isolation to be a big issue at university — in The Guardian’s annual Student Experience survey, 44% of students reported feeling the same way. In the same survey, 9 in 10 (87%) first year university students found it difficult to cope with the social or academic aspects of university life. There are many reasons as to why the social aspects of university can be extremely daunting: there is a large pressure to spend Freshers’ week (or fortnight depending on the university) out drinking. People also feel pressured to immediately click with other people in order to not miss out, and when that does not happen, people can become extremely withdrawn. For many people, they will also be leaving behind a group of friends that they have known for a large portion of their lives in order to study, socialise and perhaps live with complete strangers.
Alice Lerace, a third year Journalism student at Portsmouth University talked about what she found to be the reason why so many people struggled: “Being away from home is not easy, then you add the stress of living on your own, having to cook, clean, shop, work, probably find a part-time job, making sure you meet all the deadlines with somewhat good marks all whilst trying to have a social life and meet people.”
In The Guardian’s annual Student experience survey a large portion of students felt the same way — with 37% reporting balancing work and study was an issue, 36% reporting financial difficulties was causing them to really struggle, and 22% reported difficulty with living independently. It is easy to feel as though these students are struggling because of a reluctance to work (instead preferring to go out partying) or being too lazy to prioritise their work but regardless these are issues that still need to be addressed.
For some students who have relied on their families’ routine to schedule themselves, they may find that meal times are irregular and bedtimes can often be quick power naps in-between studying and lectures. For some, they may have been pressured into studying by their parents, and now it is up to them to fit it in. People who have a lower income may also feel pressured into missing studying (or even lectures) in order to work – this can cause people to fall further and further behind, the mounting workload can then become overwhelming.
I spoke to Patrick Tatarian, who is the lead on union development and one of the student union officers at Kingston University, on how universities can support students better: “At the Union we are doing as much as we can to support students who have mental health issues, through various campaigns run throughout the year such as Self Care Week and Keep Calm & Study. […] I would personally say that the University could do more to support students with mental health issues. When students approach Student Wellbeing for support, usually they only provide the student with no more than six counselling sessions at fixed times which a student is expected to commit to if they want to continue to be seen”
The lack of free counselling sessions can be a big issue at other universities as well, as often in order to go private, students are often expected to fork out a minimum of £20 an hour. This means that counselling is very inaccessible for a large portion of students, especially those who have mental health issues over financial matters.
Whilst some universities do put on events like Self Care Week, a lot of students are still in the dark as to what help they can receive – in The Guardian’s annual Student Experience Survey a third of students saying they wouldn’t know where to go in order to get mental health support, and 40% saying that they felt nervous about what sort of help they could receive. It is clear that in spite of awareness events, more needs to be done in order to actually properly raise awareness.
Mental health issues are much like other illnesses, in the fact that if spotted early enough they can be dealt with much more effectively and before they become a bigger issue. Allowing mental health issues to grow sees a rise in workload and stress for students, this workload can add additional stress creating a vicious cycle. Whilst it is great universities have awareness events, they should be pushing students to actually attending them or even more readily advertising it. With Freshers’ perhaps the incentive should not be on encouraging students to experience being ridiculously drunk in each of the local nightclubs, but actually preparing them to live and study independently.
Accessed 31st of October, Guardian Website. Home Page: https://www.theguardian.com/uk. Article viewed: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/dec/14/majority-of-students-experience-mental-health-issues-says-nus-survey
Accessed 2nd of November, Guardian Website. Home Page: https://www.theguardian.com/uk. Article viewed: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/sep/07/its-time-for-universities-to-put-student-mental-health-first
Accessed 2nd of November, NUSConnect. Home page: https://www.nusconnect.org.uk. Article viewed: https://www.nusconnect.org.uk/resources/mental-health-poll-2015
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From mental health to physical health.