According to a survey by the National Union of Students, 78% – the vast majority – of British university students report that they have experienced mental health issues within the last year. Further, a third report having had suicidal thoughts. At the start of this new university year, Erin Stewart reflects on these figures and on her own student experience.
The extent of mental illness in universities is staggering. The idea you could look around your lecture theatre of a hundred students and, on average, almost eighty of them would be struggling with their mental health is a phenomenal state of affairs.
Mental illness usually emerges before an individual has reached the age of 25. Given that the majority of students are young, they are already a vulnerable population. Going to university can also bring a wide host of stressors such as moving away from home, figuring out what to do with your life, managing academic pressures alongside social life and keeping up with the rising financial burden of studies. Chronic stressors like these can lead to exhaustion and further complications for both mental and physical health.
When you add the fact that various academic and social aspects of university life effectively mask problems, campuses are a natural setting for underlying issues to fester and swell.
In the midst of facing difficulties adjusting to university, actually talking about the struggle is rare. After years of feeling exceptionally bright in my ‘small pond’ high school, it was a shock to find out that everyone at uni was more accomplished, widely read and gregarious than me (at least from my perspective). Embarking on a new life was easy for them and hard for me. In an orientation activity where we were to talk about our fears, I was the only one to mention homesickness.
I was kindly told by staff after the exercise that it was likely that everyone else in the same room was feeling that way, but it was difficult to believe it. My peers had such a casual manner with each other, even though they had only met in the preceding days. They all had the reassurance that this was where they were meant to be, and that this was where they were about to thrive. When I faced mental health difficulties down the track, I believed that my struggles made me different from my peers. Statistically though, my experience was actually the norm.
I’m sure I contributed to this problem of false perception myself – it is a vicious cycle. When I faced mental illness in my second and third years of university I barely told anyone. I covertly made GP and psychology appointments while attempting to cultivate that airy ease that I saw in everyone else. When that got too difficult, I just pretended that the reason I stopped going to class and social events was because I had a cold.
Not that others minded. The university academic year is set up such that students can often skip class without failing. Different universities and different disciplines will have different policies on attendance and assessment, but my experience was that most assessment was piled toward the end of a semester and there were no formal attendance requirements. The relative independence of university life was a breath of fresh air but the downside was that sometimes I got lost in the months of free days.
My general pattern of academic life was to start each semester taking voracious notes, reading as much as possible, finding the front row centre seat in classes, and diligently drafting essays weeks before they were due. My conscientiousness gradually gave way to my social life, my laziness, my mental illness, as I did the bare minimum required to keep up. If I knew a week of content wouldn’t be assessed, I would skip it. If important lectures were recorded I’d listen to them remotely, likely in bed and barely concentrating on the main points. Near the end of the semester I would panic and go into a mad flurry of activity to finish what I had started weeks earlier. Usually my results were fine, not to my potential but good enough to avoid concern.
The spurts of activity and inactivity that characterises normal university life allow students to hide their struggles for weeks, even months, on end. The long breaks give students a chance to recuperate from their efforts and the process continues until graduation.
While classes go neglected, it is also considered normal for university students to experiment with drugs, particularly alcohol. In my residential hall, there was an annual event where alcohol was served from 8am onwards. Formal dinners and other special events came catered with more wine than water by a ratio of 5:1. Every week, going to bars and clubs and pubs seemed to be the main extracurricular activity for students and it was normal to be woken up by drunk students shouting at 4am.
In this context, it is difficult to tell the difference between a person using alcohol to celebrate their fledging adulthood and independence and a person using alcohol to help them cope with their difficulties. It is another way in which student life secretly harbours mental illness.
But hiding is rarely sustainable. Every university has stories of students who have taken their own life. Every person who has been to university likely knows someone who discontinued their course for mental health reasons. The unspoken aspect of mental illness at university is toxic. The first step out of this hidden mess is to admit that there is one.