University is so often talked about as being the best years of your life, a place where you will make life long friends, get involved with many societies and gain independence. However, this is a large leap in a person’s life and it can bring with it a number of difficulties. Students are warned about the stress that studying at university will bring with it, as well as potential mental health issues that may arise. However, what is not often discussed is the level at which mental health problems exist, with the number of students dropping out from university courses due to mental illness increasing significantly in recent years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, mental health difficulties are more prevalent in university students than the general population with 75% of all mental health difficulties developing in individuals by their mid-20s (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010).
A recent study carried out by the National Union of Students worryingly showed that 80% of students faced mental health problems whilst at university with universities reporting a 50% increase in suicides – it has become an epidemic. It is recognised that a student’s mental wellbeing will directly impact on their performance academically, the friendships created and overall experience at the university. It is not simply in the best interests of the university to invest time and money into the wellbeing of their students (and staff), but in fact it is their duty to do so. The prevalence of mental health difficulties at university is like no other and it is time that it was acknowledged as a serious issue rather than accepted as ‘part of the university experience’ and fuelling a culture of acceptance. So what have I found out so far?
Academic pressure can fuel mental health difficulties
Whilst the majority of students will have joined university straight after completing their A-levels or similar qualifications and work pressure is nothing new to them, the shear intensity can come as quite a shock. During the previous years of educations a student will likely have a large level of guidance, through workload, managing time and the exact content required. University is likely to be the first time that a student is asked to learn content independently, to manage their own and to think outside of the box, creating their own ideas far beyond a textbook. You will definitely miss the days of school where all of the course content required was contained within a single book and you’re not balancing a pile slowly falling out of the library – that will be the information for the introduction almost covered! I wish I were joking! Sadly, for many students being overwork can lead to isolation and the sudden responsibility can become overwhelming and lead to amplified stress levels. Many Universities suggest that you should spend a minimum of 40 hours per week, only 8 hours beneath the defined maximum for ‘full-time work’ in the UK, with many students working part time jobs on the top as a result of financial strain.
Financial strain will become a larger strain than you first imagine
Financial stress can drive mental health difficulties, with expensive tuition fees alongside uncertain job prospects; students are becoming evermore stressed about whether the costs incurred will pay off. With tuition fee’s on the rise again, students are facing more worry about their financial capability of university – is the education becoming elitist once again? Whilst it is hard to confirm, there has been a significant correlation between increased fees and the amount of students accessing counselling services, with universities such as University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University both seeing a 70%+ increase following the 2012 tuition fee rise (The Complete University Guide, 2017). Going into university, 94% of students will require funding from external sources such as student loans and grants in order to aid their university education. However, there is no guarantee that the loans or similar received will equally match the cost of living, resulting in many students taking on part-time work, taking away from their studies. Students should not be facing a choice between financial pressure and leaving university, a burden adding to an already stressful time in life.
A routine is essential to your mental health at university
University is a huge change from previous education. You will be use to 9am-3pm days, 5 days a week. You will be waking up at the same time each morning, with the potential lay in on the weekend and going to bed around the same time. You have structure to your days, the same lessons, weekly homework deadlines to meet and parents/teachers guiding you along your way. At University, the ball is well and truly in your corner. You choose to attend lectures, if you skip it there will unlikely be any follow up unless you are regularly skipping. You choose what time to wake up and go to bed. For many self-management can be incredibly difficult, there are different social events on different evenings, there are deadlines at different stages, it won’t always be easy, or possible to stick to a bedtime/morning routine and losing this structure can have a really big impact on productivity.
Social media is a blessing and a curse
I am sure this is nothing new to many students, however, at University social media seems to become ‘more central’ to the experience, friend requests left, right and centre, tagged photos, house party invites. Social media in general is known to have both positive and detrimental impacts to a person’s mental health, with a whole network allowing us to judge ourselves and our lives against others. The constant and sometimes relentless stream of status updates and photos of people appearing to have a good time can turn social media into an area of competition instead of relaxation.
Living at home can be beneficial and isolating at the same time
When you picture a university student, you imagine students living away from home, having flatmates for the first time, but what about the 27% of students living at home? For some living at home whilst at uni would seem like absolute hell, for others this would be a more comforting option – not to mention saving some money. Living at home gains you the best of both worlds, you will not have to worry about freezing in the winter because your flatmate didn’t pay the bill, or laying in bed eating pasta for the 8th night in a row, but you will have to try harder to fit in with close groups that live together. This is especially noticeable in first year following ‘freshers’, which is definitely not made for students living at home and you may notice most of your friends are from your course rather than across university courses – be sure not to shoot off straight after lectures, stay around and socialise if you are able to as it can feel very isolating at times and lead to feeling like an outsider.
Making friends and socialising
Being at university is not purely about studying, it is a whole experience, and socialising is a very important aspect. Friendships at university seem to happen and grow a lot faster than in other aspects of life. Students are put in the same position, thrown into a new environment, often not knowing anyone else – you become a very small fish, in a very large pond and latching on to the first fish you find is very common. It can be very overwhelming and very anxiety provoking starting fresh, going from multiple friends from school to having none from university and starting over and as a result you will find yourself growing deep friendships that are sometimes forced with people very quickly. But you may also realise that some friendships were purely from the shared fear of having no friends, and it’s okay to let those relationships go. If you are lucky though, you will develop strong friendships that will last a lifetime or even find your future partner!
Fresher’s week may damage more than your liver
Fresher’s week, the start of the university year. It is a great way to meet people, make friends, relax and slowly (stumble) ease into the university life. Whilst this period is usually seen as a student essential, the shear amount of clubbing, events and most notable… alcohol can become too frequent and prove overwhelming for some. During freshers (and throughout the university experience) it is important to remember that alcohol is a depressant, though it may act as a mood enhancer for short-periods, caffeine can aggravate or cause anxiety, and recreational drugs are often linked to paranoia. I want to make the point very clear that having mental health issue in no way means that a person automatically has an issue with substance abuse, however the two things unfortunately at times come together. By limiting your intake of all artificial stimulants the natural balance in your mind will be better maintained.
Services are there for you, make use of them
At school there may or may not have been a nurse for the students to speak with, however at university there will be an onsite doctors surgery and more often than not a wellbeing centre which offers a variety of services to support students. When at school you will have a large amount of contact with the staff, however at university you will have minimal contact hours with staff and thus sadly much less likely for them to pick up on symptoms of poor mental wellbeing, unless you bring it to their attention. It is very important that you speak to your tutors and also the wellbeing centre when you need that additional support, which would be a blessing for any university student.
What are your experiences of Mental Health at University?