Is university harming your mind?

On Wednesday 13th November the Buchanan Institute held an event entitled “Is University Harming Your Mind?”, which discussed the mental health services offered by the University and the challenges students face whilst studying.

The short answer is no. However, this does not mean that we should cease to take the issue seriously.

NUS conducted research in 2013 which found that of 1,200 Higher Education students surveyed, 20 per cent considered themselves to have mental health problems, whilst 13 per cent had suicidal thoughts. In a country where 2,340,275 young adults go to university, these figures indicate that some 30,500 students have thought seriously about taking their own lives, approximately equivalent to the student population of this university.

However, as EUSA’s Vice President Societies and Activities, Eve Livingston, states, mental health issues are rising across the population, not just amongst students.

On a national scale, the problem of mental health is immense. According to The Mental Health Foundation, a quarter of the United Kingdom’s population will experience some kind of mental health issue within the course of a year. Recent information from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a leading economic think-tank, demonstrates that Britain annually pays £70bn tackling mental health issues, and an OECD study found that the UK’s failure to cope adequately with mental health issues cost 4.5 per cent of GDP each year. This was caused by productivity losses, higher benefit payments and the increased cost to the NHS.

Back on campuses, many universities have recently undertaken studies to determine the cause of distress and mental illness amongst their students. A recent study by the University of Edinburgh largely confirmed the NUS’ findings that mental distress triggers include stacked academic deadlines, financial difficulty, the sense of isolation upon becoming subsumed in a new and large community and the fierce competition for employment post-study.

Keen-eyed readers will have noticed the distinction between mental illness and mental distress. Although a person in mental distress may exhibit some of the symptoms of mental illness – such as anxiety, confused emotions, hallucination, rage and depression – they may do so without actually being ‘ill’ in a medical sense. Mental illness refers to a specific set of medically defined conditions and is characterised by the persistence of symptoms. In sum, both mental illness and mental distress can be debilitating and have serious consequences for sufferers.

Undoubtedly the findings of NUS do contribute to a greater understanding of the problem of mental health in universities, but the salient question, the one the Buchanan Institute was driving at, is, are our studies rewiring our brains? Well, I sincerely hope so. At university, new concepts and theories will challenge us; students of philosophy will be confronted by epistemology, history and politics students will be bombarded with recurring episodes of human violence, students of neuroscience will be asked to reduce the human experience to chemical interactions and sociology students will continually examine the exploitation of the marginalised. Nietzsche famously said, “When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you”. We have in our heads a powerful tool and at university we are asked to extend our minds. But when we over-engage it we risk folding the darkness we wish to investigate back onto ourselves.

Are we well enough prepared to deal with the challenges of university? Probably not, but the underlying causes of mental illnesses are far too complicated to be attributed to university alone. The legitimate question we can ask is, “Is the university doing enough to respond to mental illness?”

Universities across the country seem to struggle on this count. A 2013 Huffington Post article indicates that “statistics from 14 of the country’s top universities between 2006/7 and 2011/12 show a trend towards less funding, coupled with an increase in demand from students for counselling”.

We are lucky that our representative Eve Livingston herself was a speaker at the Buchanan Institute’s discussion and is a member of the university’s Mental Health Working Group. It is important that we have representatives who can raise our concerns on the right platforms. Furthermore, in the period analysed by The Huffington Post the University of Edinburgh actually increased spending on counselling services by a quarter of a million pounds. The counselling services are a good start and the university has taken action to educate staff about how to deal with mental illness amongst students and their peers.

Nonetheless, de-stigmatisation is key to tackling mental illness. This issue goes beyond the university because it falls at the feet of society.

I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that we live in a culture that stigmatises and silences the mentally ill. The depictions of mental health in movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Hannibal are familiar to us and the tabloids consistently shock with headlines where mental illness is front and centre of horrific crimes. However, the majority of violent crimes and homicides are committed by people who do not have mental health problems, and if mentally ill individuals pose a risk at all it is more likely to be to themselves.

A three month study of 74 programmes revealed that 63 per cent of references to mental health in TV soaps and drama were “pejorative, flippant or unsympathetic”. Terms used on-screen included: “crackpot”, “a sad little psycho”, “basket case” and “he was looney tunes”. Similarly, in our common discourse we use words like “mental”, “crazy” as casual perjoratives. This is important in that one quarter of those surveyed by NUS did not tell anyone about their problems and a mere one in ten used any care provided by their institution. We must be aware that the language we use condemns sufferers to isolation.

We are all aware of Winston Churchill’s black dog but people still contend that Churchill’s heroism stems in part from his ability to achieve what he did in spite of his canine companion. Churchill’s gloomy moments are famous, but an argument is to be made that these moods enabled him to discern that which needed to be seen at a critical juncture in history. Furthermore, bookshelves, galleries and music collections are filled with the product of the “mentally ill”, whose artistic interpretations make us consider the world in different and no-less accurate ways. Illness, just like health, is an equal part of the human condition, and as such doesn’t deserve to be stigmatised.

For students with a longer term mental health condition a range of equality driven resources are available in the Student Disability Service. Students can access support to look at the way their condition may impact on their studies. With advice from staff in SDS this may involve the creation of a learning profile with a number of recommended adjustments. A student can also seek advice about referral to the Specialist Mental Health Mentor service. Mental Health Mentors are mental health professionals with extensive experience and provide one to one, individualised support to students in managing their mental health condition and their studies.

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