Harsh lessons in distress - students tell of mental health struggles at university

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As many teenagers collecting their A-level results today prepare for university, Laura Drysdale looks at the mental health problems facing students and what is being done to help.

“This is such an important issue,” says one student in response to a social media post about mental health at university. “It needs to be talked about more and more.”

Her time in higher education has not been easy, it has been a journey of mental health struggles including depression and anxiety – and she is not alone.

Research paints a picture of a rocketing number of university students trying to access support services, drop outs due to mental health issues and increasing levels of mental distress and low wellbeing.

“The fact is that most mental health conditions do actually manifest around the typical university entry age,” says Dr Lisa Webster of Leeds Trinity University, a researcher in student mental health.

The conditions can be exacerbated by stresses experienced by students. Many find themselves living independently for the first time, forced to manage a budget and build new social networks from scratch. Some have to juggle their academic work with a part-time job and most face eye-watering student loan and tuition fee debts, knowing employment after study is not necessarily guaranteed.

The pressures can result in a prolonged period of stress for students, and can have a detrimental effect on mental health, Dr Webster explains. Feeling under pressure is all too familiar to 20-year-old law student Jamie Dublin, PhD student Nicky Stubbs, both from Barnsley, and Kate Moore who is undertaking PhD study at the University of Leeds.

“It is a lot to take on. I feel like people disregard how we feel sometimes and that is why it gets so bad,” says Jamie, who has anxiety and depression. “University is really hard,” she says, “and going through it when you feel like this makes everything ten times worse.”

Mental health issues are “rife” among PhD students, says 27-year-old Nicky, claiming that the process is “isolating”. “I think everyone suffers with imposter syndrome, thinking it is an accident you are there and you don’t belong” he says.

Kate too is no stranger to feeling out of place. “There’s this expectation that university is going to be so fun”, the 30-year-old, who dropped out of higher education due to anxiety aged 18, says. She returned to university four years later, going onto complete an undergraduate degree at the University of Sheffield and a postgraduate at Queen Mary’s in London.

“You are going to make a lot of friends instantly and it is going to be the best time of your life. Actually it is really hard. You are moving away from home with people you have never met before, you are away from your family, you are having to manage your money.

“The reality is for many students that it is not like (the best time of your life). But the people who are struggling, you don’t hear from, so you think that you are on your own with it.”

Far from being alone, Kate, who has had counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for anxiety and depression, is one of thousands of students who have sought support.

According to a report last year by think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, levels of mental illness, mental distress and low wellbeing among students in higher education in the UK are increasing.

Universities have, in the five years leading up to the report, experienced the impact of this with 94 per cent of institutions reporting a rise in demand for counselling.

In 2014/15, a record number of those experiencing mental health problems dropped out of university, it states. The number of student suicides in England and Wales has also increased since 2001, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The topic of mental health at university has not been far from the spotlight this year, with the main focus on what can be done to help students and to enable them to access care if they need it.

In May, Universities UK’s Student Mental Health Services Task Group published ‘Minding our future’, which said links between local NHS services and the support universities provide need to improve.

A month later Universities Minister Sam Gyimah and Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, revealed plans to develop a charter recognising universities that meet mental health standards to promote staff and student wellbeing.

It will be produced in partnership with higher education charity the UPP Foundation, the Office for Students, the National Union of Students and Universities UK.

“We want mental health support for students to be a top priority for the leadership of all our universities. Progress can only be achieved with their support – I expect them to get behind this important agenda as we otherwise risk failing an entire generation of students”, says Mr Gyimah.

Wellbeing support, counselling services, and in some cases GPs and specialist mental health services are among the support universities offer.

“For me, it makes sense to look after the students,” says Penelope Aspinall, head of disability, counselling and mental health at the University of Bradford, which recently received more than £30,000 from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for a project improving support for the mental health of postgraduate research students.

“If they are feeling safe and don’t have stuff on their mind and aren’t feeling anxious or depressed, they study better, they achieve better, they don’t drop out and they progress with higher degrees.”

In 2016, a task group at the University of York, where there were a number of student deaths, looked at what could be done to better help those struggling with mental health issues, with the university investing up to £500,000 in mental health care provision as a result.

Two years on, a spokesperson for the institution says: “We take the mental health and wellbeing of our students very seriously and have a number of services and initiatives in place. These include the expansion of our student support service with the addition of six new mental health practitioner posts.”

But whilst support services are needed, Dr Webster, of Leeds Trinity, whose research looks at factors that promote a positive adjustment to university life, believes a focus is needed on helping students to protect themselves against the negative impact of pressures.

“We shouldn’t be waiting for students to present themselves with mental health conditions or struggles,” she says. “We need to be embedding education in our students about how they can protect themselves and their wellbeing before these present themselves. We need intervention early.”

For help, phone the Samaritans 24-hour line on 116 123.

‘Investment needed’

A Vice President of the National Union of Students says cash is needed to help a mental health “epidemic”.

Emily Chapman, who lives in Headingley, Leeds, is calling for investment into support services for students at colleges and universities.

The 29-year-old, who has anxiety, also wants to see a “robust, means-tested maintenance support system” to help with financial pressures on students.

“When you see that, things will start to get better,” she says.

“It is not going to be a quick fix solution.”

PhD student Kate Moore believes coping strategies and classes such as meditation, yoga and animal therapy visits should be promoted more to help people better manage their mental health.