Why We Need To Talk About Mental Health At Uni

The number of students dropping out of university due to poor mental health is shooting up dramatically. We ask what needs to change.

Why We Need To Talk About Mental Health At Uni

by Helen Nianias |
Published on

It is demonstrably harder to be a young person today than it has been in recent years. With higher tuition fees, a lack of housing benefit, pressures from social media, and the threat of Artificial Intelligence sneaking up from the rear, there are pressures that were unimaginable a decade ago.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have manifested themselves in university students. Today, it’s been reported that The Higher Education Statistics Agency found a record 1,180 students who experienced problems with their mental health left university in the 2014-15 academic year. In 2009-10, a mere 380 did the same.

The Times today also revealed that the number of students at elite universities Oxford, Bristol, Imperial College and University College London are twice as likely to seek help for mental distress than they were in 2004.

The debt that people are left with from English universities is the highest in the English-speaking world. It’s an average of £44,000, and this is compared with the average £16,200 of debt faced by those who graduated five years earlier. That’s extra stress to the tune of £27,800. £27,800 less likely to be able to buy a house, take a fulfilling career, live independently.

A PhD student who teaches at a prestigious London university told me that almost every student he speaks to in tutorials is stressed about money, and it’s impacting their work and mental health.

It can hardly come as a surprise that if extra pressures are heaped on young people by the government, then they’re going to feel it.

Maria*, 23, is one such example. Despite trying to make the first step and seek help, she says that the support at her university, which in the north of England, has been appalling.

'After I contacted student support about struggling with anxiety and depression, I didn’t even get an email or call confirmation that they’d received my request or to indicate how long I might be waiting for help,” she says. “I did that five weeks ago and still no one has got back to me.'

Her parents moved to Australiahalfwayy through her degree so she is without a home once her uni lease finishes and is under – surprise - huge financial strain. Since reaching out to the uni she has found out her Dad has been diagnosed with cancer. And still, nothing.

Jules*, also23, graduated last year and currently works in a student facing role at a London university. He says: 'The problem is that there’s a huge disparity in supervision from personal tutors and mental health training isn’t compulsory. They’re told to signpost to services that don’t have the capacity to support everyone'.

Half ofacademics show signs of psychological distress according to one study, and this tallies with what Jules has witnessed. 'During my time as a student officer at a university one third of PhD students were failing to complete because of the impact on their mental and physical health.'

Dr Deba Choudhury-Peters, Chartered Clinical Psychologist at Nightingale Hospital, explains that we need to engage with negative feelings in order to take care of ourselves.

'Teenagers and adults have a tendency to avoid particularly distressing feelings, but it is important to increase your awareness of how you experience anxiety in your body, for example palpitations or discomfort in your tummy, which will help you manage it. Holding on to anxiety can make you feel overwhelmed. It is important to speak to family, friends or someone you trust about how you’re feeling and what is distressing you.'

Do this when you start to feel it rather than waiting for the anxiety to build up, she recommends. 'Releasing your feelings early on to will avoid you becoming overwhelmed.'

While it is worrying that so many students are stressed out, but perhaps the fact they can talk about it and then make the right decision for themselves points to a more positive attitude towards mental health. It's the beginning of a long journey.

Additional reporting by Molly Shanahan

You might also be interested in:

Why Scrapping Tuition Fees Isn't Necessarily The Answer To Young People's Problems

Students Are Facing A Mental Health Epidemic

Was 2016 A Tipping Point For Mental Health?

Follow Helen on Twitter @helennianias

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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