In the wake of the documented rise in student mental health rates, and on University Mental Health Day, I wanted to discuss my own experience of depression as a student, as well as share my thoughts about what universities should be doing to tackle this potentially devastating illness.
My story stretches back 20 years, when I began a degree in English at the University of Reading. With the understanding that I have now, there is no doubt that I began university life in a state of mild depression, which grew steadily worse over the three years that I spent there. It wasn’t until I reached crisis point, just after I graduated, that I began to receive treatment. That process is ongoing. Sadly, much of the distress of that time could have been avoided had I been able to label and address this illness. As a teenager in the late 1990s, however, there was little discussion of mental health and certainly no awareness on my part that I was suffering from a clinical condition.
Unfortunately, left untreated, depression becomes a self-feeding illness. Like many people who suffer from the condition, I started to engage in behaviour that made it worse. I drank far more, slept more, and started to avoid new social situations. I smoked cannabis. I took less care of my physical health and spent more and more time absorbed by sad thoughts instead of living in the moment. Very often, I felt tearful, anxious and a sense of dread. I also started to experience minor compulsions and panic attacks.
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I did think of speaking to someone about it many times, but it was difficult to know who I should be speaking to and, if so, what it was I should be speaking about. One of the characteristics of a mood disorder is that you become less objective about your own situation, and less likely to do anything about it. As a young student with little experience of adult life, I began to accept these symptoms as a “normal” part of my existence.
If the bad news is that depression is often a recurring illness, the good news is that in most cases it can be effectively treated, and even prevented, with a combination of the right support and an understanding of how lifestyle can affect mental health. Initiatives such as University Mental Health Day, which challenge the stigma of mental illness and promote a culture of openness and discussion, are a significant step in the right direction. Especially when we consider that more than one in four students suffer from one kind of mental health problem or another.
There is no doubt in my mind that each institution should have its own well-developed strategy for emotional well-being in its student population, including a student counselling service, an anonymous helpline, a range of online self-help resources and even a student-staffed outreach programme.
Twenty years later I am encouraged to see this kind of provision at the University of Birmingham, where I am now a PhD student. But it is equally important that these services are well-advertised. Every single undergraduate should be aware of the counselling services available to them, as well as the circumstances in which these services can be accessed. In my case, it might have taken a single email, poster or lecture shout-out to have altered the course of my undergraduate life.
But I would like to see universities go much further than this. The current set-up is too much about responding to mental health crises, rather than preventing such emergencies in the first place. It is time that universities adopted a proactive approach; one which addresses the many challenges that we know students face.
I would like to see a course in mental well-being attached to every undergraduate programme. This course would be about raising mental health awareness, as well as sharing knowledge and developing the skills that enhance mental well-being. This needn’t be an academic course, or an expensive one. To begin with, this might take the form of a self-contained online course in the student’s first year at university, ideally supplemented by occasional workshops. Over time, as we begin to glean the benefits and collect feedback, the course could grow and develop.
Graduates will emerge from their degrees with a range of well-informed strategies for mental well-being, an understanding that will serve both the individual and the people around them as they enter the workplace and progress through their lives. No institution is better placed to provide this kind of holistic training for the mind, and no institution has more of an ethical obligation to do so.