“Rising numbers of stressed students seek help” (BBC 2015)
“72% of respondents declared personal experience with mental health problems” (Student Minds 2011)
“13% of students have suicidal thoughts” (NUS 2013)
Sensationalist headlines and extraordinary statistics. We’ve all seen them, flooding our newspapers, our universities, our unions over the past couple of years – and, finally, we’ve started talking about them. There is increasing recognition that students are suffering from the pressures of university: moving away from home, academic stress, perfectionism, social anxiety, financial problems, student expectations, social and mass media, depression, eating disorders, OCD…the list is endless. There is also increasing acknowledgment that this is “OK” and that the suffering students are not the only ones – they are not a small minority. This represents a big step for universities, and for students, especially those facing the greatest struggles.
But in the broader scope of things, it’s not a leap but a shuffle. Assuring students that their problems are valid and widespread is all very well, but what happens when there’s a totally inadequate framework in place to help them address their issues? Halfway through my second year, I found myself fraught with anxiety, something I’d never experienced before going to university. The combination of stressing about coursework essays, impending exams and receiving a scary electric shock in my student house left me feeling shaken, nervous and isolated. My anxiety quickly progressed from worry over an essay to distressing claustrophobia in lecture theatres, and struggling to leave the house. Knowing that I needed to do something about it, both to get me through my second year and to restore my own sanity, I quickly contacted student psychological services at University College London – and filled out their in-depth online form. I received no response for some months; when I finally did, I was offered an appointment in November – eight months after I contacted them. In the meantime, I’d been to my GP, who told me, somewhat patronisingly, “we all get worried sometimes” before hesitantly referring me to a psychologist. I received a letter from Southwark psychological services offering me an appointment, over the phone, five months later.
So what does a student do when this is the case – when they’ve accessed all reasonable routes for help and received no offers of support? They wait, or they pay. I paid, £45 a session, to see a psychologist who was excellent and supported me no end. Fortunately, I was in a position where I could just about stretch to afford this support – but I shouldn’t have had to call on my own financial resources. If students, universities, students’ unions, newspapers, the entire internet is aware of the extent of the mental health issues students are suffering from, why is there not an adequate service in place to help them manage it – whether that be directly through universities or through local health centres? Unfortunately, mental health problems are not restricted to the elite, and asking students to suffer in silence or pay for support is unreasonable and discriminatory.
So although being offered a group appointment with a psychologist in eight months’ time, receiving an extension on an essay or having an “extenuating circumstances” form pushed your way is appreciated, it is not enough. I can go online now and make an appointment with the careers service for next week – why can’t I make one with the psychological services? It doesn’t really matter if I’m applying for internships or practising psychometric tests if I can barely leave my house to attend my lectures, so why isn’t this reflected in the services available? We need to start asking why the majority of students are experiencing mental health problems, why these headlines reveal some truth – for the unbelievable statistics represent real people. And then we need to put in place reasonable means and facilities to deal with this situation. Talk about mental health all you like, but when are we going to start doing something?