How university is affecting the mental health of our young people

It’s easy to write the statistic that over half of students at university have experienced mental ill health, it’s harder to comprehend when you try to understand just how many individuals have struggled in order to create that number.

But it’s a worryingly consistent figure. A recent survey notes that 77 per cent of students chose to go to university for career opportunities, but 70 per cent also noted their mental health became an issue for them, citing ‘depression’, ‘loneliness’, and various ‘pressures’. Not exactly the glowing endorsements and recollections describe in every prospectus. Amidst the scrapping of grants and an increase in loans, it’s hardly a surprise that those students also struggling financially were more likely to drop out altogether. Look to other studies, and the figures reappear.

A survey from The Guardian cites over a third of students struggle with financial pressures, while nearly 9 in 10 students admit finding it hard to cope. This, unsurprisingly, doesn’t halt at graduation day. A Student Mindsinterim report on graduate wellbeing notes that nearly half of recent graduates are currently experiencing mental ill health, with even more mentioning past struggles. These statistics alone should be enough to shock, but they also represent a wider picture. Students in each survey note their reasons for going to university, aside from career goals, as the ‘best possible future’, away to ‘fulfil ambitions’, learn more about their subject area, and branch out socially. Neatly balanced with their optimism, however, is that recurring word: pressure. It’s too simplistic to blame outside pressures for mental health struggles, but it’s dismissive and inconsiderate to ignore them. Students at university are being bombarded on every level with articles citing rising numbers of (well qualified) graduates to compete with, a country divided by Brexit (overwhelmingly opposed by the younger generation), and, whatever the reassurances politicians deflect with,a student loan account containing a figure that would produce anxiety in just about anyone.

Whatever the reason for attending university, It seems likely that a fair amount of prospective applicants don’t, at the very least, enter the process imagining their day to day lives will resemble what these surveys suggest. But it’s not something that starts the minute students walk through their accommodation door. Schools are simultaneously being compelled to focus on and drive up exam results while reassuring each cohort of students their worth doesn’t rely on the same system they’re trying to propel them through. The eighteen-year-olds arriving at university halls for the first time, some by a matter of weeks, have just aged out of the adolescent mental health system that’s been awarded more funding. Universities across the country are expanding their wellbeing and counselling services, signposting 1/4 students to their GP with mental health concerns, and then on to another NHS system struggling amidst underfunding and limited resources. While this doesn’t change, the statistics in these surveys will only continue to grow.

People are inclined to comment on who could do more, which provider is most responsible for these young adults and which should begin the appropriate expansion of support services. But it’s easier to start with smaller differences. Universities give welcome lectures on research skills, how to get involved in societies, careers talks. Adding one which signposts where students can access support and acknowledging how the move to university can affect your mental health seems a fair topic, in light of these surveys, to add.

 

Illustration: Polly Burnay 

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The Student Newspaper 2016