The poorest years of your life

March 30, 2001

Poverty is leading to mental illness among students and robbing them of an enriching experience, says Denise Meyer.

Poverty is leading to mental illness among students and robbing them of an enriching experience, says Denise Meyer A time for finding yourself, for forging friendships, for taking time to make choices about a life path. A transition time between childhood and working life, or a time to change career. A time for testing your abilities and finding a balance between discipline and recreation.

Student life has traditionally provided an opportunity for all of these things, in addition to producing citizens with the mental and emotional resources to sustain a stable community.

Alas, student life in the 21st century provides less and less of this kind of opportunity. It is increasingly a life of high stress. Greater student numbers and an emphasis on universities and colleges being cost-effective mean a more anonymous, isolated campus experience with pressure on students to study subjects that lead to "good" jobs.

Unrealistic expectations for all to get high grades leave many anxious and lacking self-esteem. A recent Mental Health Foundation study shows an increase in mental illness among young people. Add the effect of greater poverty on students' mental health and we are faced with serious implications for these individuals and for society.

An inefficient student loan system and tuition fees leave students substantially worse off. Studies show that poverty is closely linked with depression and that stress is a precipitant of more serious mental illness.

Of course, relative poverty has always been a part of student life, but this used to be balanced with "time wealth". Loans and fees leave students in greater poverty and poorer in time. They now work long hours in low-paid jobs, juggling academic demands with work to make ends meet.

Aspects of life vital for mental health and wellbeing - sleep, diet, exercise, recreation and relationships - are increasingly sacrificed. Students do far less sport, citing lack of time and poverty.

Participation in voluntary work is also reduced. Opportunities for meaningful, esteem-building and career-relevant work are replaced by shelf-stacking or the like. And in the end, missing lectures to go to work and insufficient study time jeopardise that good degree, which was the original point of it all.

This harried, stressed lifestyle puts students at increased risk of substance abuse or risky eating patterns to provide "quick" relaxation or to help them cope. Increased financial dependence on families can also magnify the effect of parental pressure or other family strain, and lead to guilt at increasing the financial burden of a family who cannot afford it.

It is not surprising that student counselling services are increasingly in demand, and that financial stresses and depression are noticeably more prevalent among the issues presented by students in counselling.

Counselling is often successful in preventing student dropout, supporting achievement in the face of these pressures and enabling students to address important life issues. However, counselling services are themselves under increasing financial pressure, and are often stretched beyond their ability to respond effectively.

Increased access to higher education becomes an empty achievement when it produces individuals crammed with vocational skills but depleted of the mental and emotional resources vital for sustaining a strong and stable society. Is this the outcome we want?

Denise Meyer is a counsellor at Royal Holloway, University of London, and editor of the journal of the Association for University and College Counselling.

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