With over half a million people preparing to make the daunting transition to university life over the coming weeks, prospective students will be full of excitement, however for some it is a nerve-wracking time. With the cost of university fees and increasingly competitive job markets today, students are under immense pressure to succeed – now more than ever. In previous years, almost nine in 10 first year students find it difficult to cope with both the social and academic aspects of university life. Students are unaware of what to expect, which can cause a significant amount of worry and stress, making the transition period a painful process. As well as feeling lonely and isolated, struggling to balance work under strict university rules, facing financial difficulties and struggling with living alone.
As a result, the number of students falling victim to mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, is increasing year on year. Thankfully, the stigma surrounding mental health has improved in recent years, meaning students are more likely to report their worries and seek help. Therefore, the demand for university mental health services is growing, but it seems that the vast majority of higher education institutions simply are not prepared to deal with this. My university certainly wasn’t.
It is important that universities acknowledge that mental health is a growing problem that will not get better unless the issue is addressed and rectified. This means a greater number of staff involved pastoral care and taking an interest in students’ well-being.
In recent years, this has not been the case. The number of students to drop out of university with mental health problems has more than trebled. Data published from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) revealed that a record number of students (1,180) who experienced mental health problems left university early in 2014/15 – a 210% increase from 380 in 2009/10.
Figures show that 87,914 students requested counselling in 2015/16, compared with 68,614 in 2013/14, a rise of 28%. At some of the 90 UK universities that provided data, demand in the 2016/17 academic year was already outstripping that of previous years, despite the year being incomplete at the time of research. I was one of those students requesting counselling last year (2016/17)
At the beginning of my first year at university, I was incredibly excited to start studying History and Politics at Newcastle. After visiting numerous open days, I knew that Newcastle University was ‘the one’. On August results day, I was absolutely over the moon to hear I had been accepted onto the course, and starting in September, but it all began to go downhill once I moved in.
A few months into my university course, the pressure to conform to the sociable student life was hitting me like a tonne of bricks. I felt incredibly overwhelmed and unhappy. I was constantly worrying that I was different from everyone else, adding to the fact I was finding it hard to make friends, however hard I tried. It seems, because I’m not really what you call the ‘typical’ university student that likes to drink alcohol until they are unaware of what’s going on around them, and for a lot of people – particularly Newcastle freshers – this was a problem.
I began feeling deeply unhappy and ultimately I ended up isolating myself to the confinements of my university bedroom; only venturing out for my lectures and seminars. I didn’t socialise much at all, apart from the odd few people I had to speak to on my course. I decided to keep my head down, in the hope I’d start to feel better, but I only began to feel worse and worse. Everyone had confidence oozing out of them, and everyone was smiling and socialising… and then there was me. I had none of those traits.
At a time where I had never felt so low and so vulnerable, I decided to contact my university’s student services. I figured that crying multiple times a day wasn’t okay, and definitely wasn’t going to fix itself, no matter how much I called home to my mum and my boyfriend. Plus, I couldn’t stand the guilt of being such a burden and making them worry about my well-being. But upon reflection, this was a ridiculous thought. Family and friends are there for you when you need help and a little pick-me-up. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s a part of human life, but once it oversteps the mark, like how I was feeling, something must be done.
By the time I eventually got given an appointment at my university’s student services, I left feeling upset and betrayed. The lady I saw made me feel so small and worthless. She insinuated that how I was feeling was ‘normal’ and how ‘every other student feels the same’, but I knew for a fact that this wasn’t really the case. I left the office in tears. I was on the verge of breaking down, walking through the campus looking (and feeling) like a wreck. There was no way that this behaviour was ‘normal’ or how everyone else was feeling, but I started to question my own mental health and tried to trick myself into believing I was fine and simply just over-reacting. However, once I got back to my bedroom, I knew something wasn’t right. I, of all people, should know how I feel, and I knew deep down that I was not alright.
I was so lost and alone, struggling to get out of bed every morning – not because I was hungover like most students, I was crippled with sadness and worry.
It was at this point that I knew something was wrong and that I really needed to seek help for the benefit of my own mental health. I was so lost and alone, struggling to get out of bed every morning – not because I was hungover like most students, I was crippled with sadness and worry. I couldn’t carry on in the state of ‘depression’ I was facing. Whether it was “depression” or not, I will never know, but one thing I do know is that I don’t ever wish anyone to feel the same way I did.
A week or so later I spoke to some else at the university student services who wasn’t so judgmental and harsh about my situation. However, on the whole, the university counselling service was useless, and this is a story that is all too familiar for the majority of students feeling the same way I had. I attended a Russell Group university that was well known for being “the ultimate student city” and for “excellent teaching and resources”, but it definitely lacked in the student well being area, without a doubt.
In many cases, student services are too late to react and give help to those who need it. Those who do receive help, such as myself, but ‘experts’ who are supposedly meant to help are so ‘out of touch’ with what university life is like, or what it means to be a young adult in today’s society. Unfortunately, many simply just do not understand, and that’s why many end up withdrawing from university, or in extreme cases, turning to self-harm or suicide.
University changed me. I started first year as a happy, confident young woman with so much excitement and hope for the future. I left as the complete opposite.
Looking back on my experience 8 months down the line, I would not change a thing. The experience has made me who I am today. Despite leaving university a mess, the experiences I had have made me so much stronger and confident. Being happy is the most important thing in life, without a shadow of a doubt. No one should brush their mental health under the carpet and pretend everything’s fine, just like I had done. Anyone that feels this way should know that there is no shame in being unhappy and asking for help. There is no shame in deciding to withdraw from university if you think it’s not working for you. As you’ll hear from many people, university is not for everyone and it certainly is not the be all or end all.