Trigger Warning: This post contains talk of mental health issues, including mentions of suicide and hospitalisation.
For many people, memories of their first year of university are a hazy blur of nights out and late night study sessions; of laughter and freedom and incomparable joy.
My memories of first year are different. There are the nights out, sure; the fond memories of meeting, dating, and falling in love with my now-fiance; blurry selfies with friends who may or may not still be in my life. But these memories are also punctuated by long, dark spots of depression. Of unwashed clothes and dirty bedsheets; of skipping lectures and crying inconsolably in seminars. Of locking myself in my room and wishing I could just disappear.
See, I started university with rocky mental health. I’d barely survived my A Levels, and although I was optimistic when I moved up north to begin my degree, my depression had never quite left me. Combine that with the pressures of living on my own, making new friends, and keeping up with my studies, and it’s no wonder that my mental health quickly declined during my first couple of terms of university.
While I didn’t know it at the time, I was not alone. Recent research has shown that five times more first-year students have a disclosed mental health condition than in 2006, and student deaths by suicide rose by 79% between 2006 and 2015. The number of students dropping out is also on the rise, and while there are a myriad of reasons for this, it’s clear that mental health problems have a significant role to play.
“I left with a follow up appointment and a distinct feeling that I was simply one of a million other students.”
By the end of my first term, I was anxious and depressed mess, and I’d all but given up trying to hide my mental health problems from my friends and teachers. When one of my tutors emailed me, angrily asking why I’d skipped the last 3 weeks of seminars, instead of hiding like I’d done in the past, I told her the truth: I was really struggling with my mental health and could barely shower, let alone attend class.
She quickly put me in touch with the university’s Open Doors team, a counselling service for students, and although I was terrified about reaching out for help, I was more terrified about continuing to live (or not) the way I was.
I turned up at my first appointment ready to discuss my problems and concerns in-depth. Instead, I was given a form to fill out and told to make myself a timetable, because it was probably the lack of structure that was making me feel this way. There was no help offered when I mentioned that I was suicidal; no attempts to figure out why I was feeling the way I felt. I was told that most first-year students felt the way that I did, and that I shouldn’t worry about. I left with a follow up appointment (that I didn’t keep, and that they didn’t chase me about) and a distinct feeling that I was simply one of a million other students.
Sadly, my experience is not unusual. Han, a mental health blogger from the south-east of England, was offered no support for her mental health while she was at university:
“At university, I ended up being hospitalised as a result of my poor mental health. I had a week off from university and then had to go back — but there was no support to go back to, apart from my friends.”
Of course, some universities are better than others, and many students manage to access much-needed counselling sessions to help them through difficult times. Accessing these services can be difficult however, and most students are only entitled to six sessions in an academic year.
“My first experience of counselling was a self-referral service that my GP told me about. But I had to wait three months for my first intake appointment, and then another three weeks for my first session,” one graduate, Robyn, told me. “Between the time I self-referred and the time I started counselling, I had gone from struggling to cope by getting by, to regressing into old habits of self-harm, and developing new habits of depending on alcohol to cope.”
One student, who wished to remain anonymous, had to wait over a month to access their university’s counselling service, and was only offered six sessions. “The counsellor was very nice,” they said, “but ultimately the six or so sessions weren’t sufficient for the long-term support I needed.”
Thankfully, many universities are recognising the need for better mental health support services. The University of Bristol currently employs 13 full-time counsellors for students, and is investing an additional £1m on a new student wellbeing service that will help students cope with the pressures of university.
These ‘extra’ measures are already in place in some universities. “The real highlight of my university’s mental health approach was its team of Mental Health Advisers,” said one student. “The role of mental health adviser was essentially to get you the help you needed from the university and other sources. This meant liaising with your department, personal tutor, GP, disability service, etc. to ensure you were feeling supported.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, without this, I would not have graduated. In fact, without the support my university provided, I’m not sure I would have lived to graduate.”
“Students shouldn’t have to wait until their tutors notice the decline in their mental health to be offered help.”
But while many universities have — or are looking into — these additional services, the reason problem seems to be lack of awareness among the student body. It’s all very well and good having counsellors and mental health teams and wellbeing services, but if students don’t know these services are there, it’s futile.
“I didn’t find out that counselling was an option until I had to email my adviser about why I had been missing classes,” admitted Sarah, and Robyn agreed: “I was able to access 40 free therapy sessions at my university by taking part in a research programme. But I had to wait over nine months to access that service, and only knew about it because of my own contacts.
“After the initial six sessions, you’re on your own and need to use your own knowledge and networks to access further support.”
It shouldn’t be this way. Students shouldn’t have to wait until their tutors notice the decline in their mental health to be offered help, and they certainly shouldn’t have to rely on knowing someone who knows someone who knows about a service to access long-term support and specialist help. If universities are taking the time, money, and effort to invest in comprehensive support systems for students, they should be be investing the same time, money, and effort into ensuring students know about these services, and are able to access them regardless of their background.
Until universities get better at speaking to their students about mental health and publicising the services they have on offer, it is likely that we’ll continue to see a decline in the mental health of university students in the UK.