Mentally ill students struggle to get help. I know: I was one of them

On-campus support for those in crisis is desperately underfunded, dangerously limited and even offputting

December 1, 2016
Unhappy young woman sitting alone
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A recent report by the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute, The Invisible Problem? Improving Students’ Mental Health, highlighted a huge problem that universities are largely failing to tackle. Lack of funding and inadequate support are having a damaging impact on the lives of students with mental illness. I know. I was one of them.

In 2013, I was offered a place at a London university while still recovering from a mental breakdown that had occurred a year previously and had left me largely confined to my bedroom. I suffered panic attacks, intense agitation, heart palpitations and an overpowering feeling of dread. The medication I was given didn’t seem to have any effect.

When I headed to London, the city seemed pregnant with possibility, but I was deeply concerned about how I would cope with university life. I spent Freshers’ Week largely alone, avoiding the forced socialisation, and I almost had a panic attack when I first met the other students on my course, crammed into a small room. The many compulsory presentations we had to give also caused me a lot of stress and anxiety, and I settled into a life as a kind of hermit, distanced from the rest of university life. I thought I was protecting myself.

Everything came to a head during my first-year exam week. While waiting for a train, my mind dwelled on all the stresses of that year. This led to a sense of hopelessness so overwhelming that it triggered a full-on panic attack. The only way out seemed to be to jump on to the tracks.

That experience proved a catalyst. Rushing out of the station, gasping for air, I never wanted to feel that way again. So, over the summer break, I researched the services available to me.

To access treatment at my university, students had to fill in a questionnaire to determine whether they were “disabled” enough. There was then a further assessment, and the care offered was dependent on your score. It seemed as if effective treatment was available only when your condition was already so severe you could barely function.

Things began to look up in my second year, when my medication was changed. But many people shared my frustration with the bureaucratic way the university health centre was run. Often, I couldn’t get the necessary prescription without seeing a doctor or going through a review session. These were generally a formality, but the centre was so understaffed it could take weeks to get an appointment.

At one point, I was going through a depressive episode and needed more medication. This required a phone call to the centre, but I was barely able to function, let alone call someone. When I finally did, the receptionist’s dictatorial tone was so offputting I was unable to deal with it. Luckily, my mother took up my cause, but even after her angry call to the centre, my family doctor was asked to fax – yes, fax – the necessary information.

On another occasion, when I was too nervous to go myself, my mother contacted the university counselling service about alternative treatments. She received no response.

It strikes me that there need to be far better systems of communication between students’ family doctors and university health centres, as well as between universities and affiliated therapists.

Pastoral care also needs to improve greatly. Students should be encouraged to discuss their feelings about their mental health: the people who most need help are often the ones least likely to ask for it, particularly if they are suffering from depression and anxiety, or disorders such as schizophrenia. Personal tutors, in particular, should be far more aware of mental heath issues.

Buddy schemes between students could also play a greater role in addressing mental health issues, with non-attendance of the regular, arranged meetings triggering a potential intervention. Wider rollout of such schemes could help break the intense isolation felt by some students, and offer them a more relaxed forum to discuss problems without having to face a stranger or an authority figure.

The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a recent graduate who writes and blogs regularly about mental health issues.

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