Student Blog: We need to talk about mental health at university

University presents unique challenges for students, and it's time we acknowledged that.
December 16 2015

When you start university and are warned about mental health issues, you assume that the warnings and reminders of support are for other people. The ones who already have mental health issues, and the types of people we might assume are already at risk. It’s not true. Mental health at university exists in a whole different realm to mental health anywhere else and it’s time that that is acknowledged. It doesn’t play by the rules everyone seems to have constructed.

Mental health at university exists in a whole different realm to mental health anywhere else and it’s time that that is acknowledged.

It can, and will, affect everyone, from every demographic. It’s not like the flu where you have to have contact with someone infected to get it, or have a weakened immune system or anything else – a lot of the time, nothing massive starts it. There is a culture at university that this is supposed to be the best time of your life – and instead of buoying you up and motivating you, it becomes a crushing weight when you realise life isn’t quite how you planned it. It’s one too many deadlines when you don’t know the lecturer and don’t feel comfortable asking for an extension. It’s seeing all your friends on Facebook out at clubs while you’re stuck inside swotting up for anatomy the next day. It’s turning up to the anatomy lab and being eviscerated by the tutor because you don’t know the brachial plexus and everything it supplies.

There are 1001 words to describe feelings and emotions, so explaining what is going on is difficult. How are you supposed to know if what you’re feeling is unusual if when you explain you’re finding things hard, and your tutor responds with “Well, this degree is hard.” Nobody tells you that life isn’t supposed to be that difficult and it can be really tough to recognise it  and even harder to admit it and seek help.  Campaigns are focused on the tough sports guys who may struggle with acknowledging their feelings because of the macho culture, when it’s just as difficult for everyone else. No one wants to admit that the perfect university life they dreamed of is crumbling around their ears, especially when everyone else seems to be having the time of their life.

No one wants to admit that the perfect university life they dreamed of is crumbling around their ears, especially when everyone else seems to be having the time of their life.

It’s extra tough because university will change everything. Your parents will no longer understand what you’re doing day to day and won’t be there for you to tell everything to. Your friends will be different and it may take some time for you to feel comfortable enough to talk about what’s going on. Once you start feeling lonely and like you can’t tell anyone, the feeling expands – you can feel so isolated because there is no one around you who you’ve known long enough to trust. You don’t have bedtimes so your sleeping pattern gets wrecked. Nobody is checking that you’re eating and pizza offers are slipped under the doors for halls most days. Your lecturers won’t talk to each other and work out how to space out your deadlines or exams – they’ll come whenever they feel like it. The deadlines aren’t just for homework that doesn’t really matter anymore – they’re for coursework that counts towards a degree, which you’re always told will be the deciding factor in how you spend the rest of your life. It can be massively overwhelming.

I started university a very bubbly, confident person, desperate to do as much good as possible and get involved in as much as I could. I was a workaholic, but that’s because I wanted to do well – I had always done well up until then, so it felt like I had to prove myself. Second year, I took a month off of university as I couldn’t move from bed without feeling like I was going to die. This year, my third, I’m back being gobby and loud, but with extra support in place.

Four out of five people at university suffered from mental health issues last year, according to a recent NUS study.

Four out of five people at university suffered from mental health issues last year, according to a recent NUS study. Whether that’s depression, anxiety, an eating disorder or something less spoken about, it can wreck your university experience – but it can also make you stronger when you come out the other side. The thing that helped me the most through everything was London Nightline – I’ve been volunteering there for the past two years and they are honestly the kindest and most accepting people you could ever hope to meet. They made me feel safe again, that I had friends and had someone to talk to.

The thing is, even when I was at my worst, I had friends. I had lots of friends in fact – but I didn’t feel comfortable admitting that I was struggling, and badly. The only time I admitted it to someone from university was when I had to tell my flatmate I was leaving and I wasn’t coming back for a while. I was being social, I was eating well, I had a regular sleeping pattern and I was keeping up with work – but I was miserable. Not something you’d expect from how mental health is portrayed in the media.

On the other hand, support isn’t always as bad as it’s made out to be – it’s just that accessing it can be difficult and confusing, and when you’re already feeling terrible it’s not the best system.

With a third of students surveyed saying they had had suicidal thoughts whilst at university, you can believe me when I say it’s not isolated to the groups of people that TV always shows. On the other hand, support isn’t always as bad as it’s made out to be – it’s just that accessing it can be difficult and confusing, and when you’re already feeling terrible it’s not the best system. There are counsellors and GPs in place specifically for students and they know what they’re doing – but accepting you’re ill and finding someone to help can be hard. However, university can also be a massive helper to those with any issues. You’re in a community where everyone is going through the same thing, so if you find it, the support is second to none.

University may not be the best time in your life, but there will be moments you will never, ever forget, even if that is for both good and bad reasons.

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