In 2014 eight per cent of students at The University of Edinburgh sought student counselling. This was a 75 per cent increase in three years – the highest seen by any of the Russell Group Universities. This coincided with the decision to increase tuition fees to £9,000 a year. Clearly, the increasing financial strain of university could well be adversely affecting the mental health of many students.
It is not just the debt that is accumulated throughout your studies, it is the knowledge of the increasingly competitive world we will enter after graduation; the awareness that we will be up against our peers for the same job; the constantly re-enforced notion that without a good degree we are significantly disadvantaged. The pressure put on students to succeed in the current political climate is staggering; it is no wonder that so many are suffering from depression and anxiety.
Unfortunately, the NHS services for mental health are limited. A typical consultation with a local GP will most likely end in being told to sign up for University counselling – which provides around six sessions – and an antidepressant prescription. Places for mental health treatment on the NHS, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, are few and far between and it is common to wait six months for a consultation.
Edinburgh University Students’ Association has acknowledged the demand the University has for mental health services and is investing £140,000 in student counselling services over the next two years. They are also making mental health first aid training compulsory for all personal tutors and are investing in mindfulness training.
Every initiative provided for students is a positive step in the direction of destigmatising mental illness. However, at present, there is no real, long term solution for depression and anxiety. Prescribing antidepressants is the closest solution that the NHS can provide. However, this medication is seen by many as somewhat of a taboo subject at university. Confessing to being on antidepressants can make some people feel uncomfortable.
A common attitude adopted by many of those who have not suffered from mental illness is that antidepressants are unnecessary when you can simply change your lifestyle. Take long walks, make lists of things you are grateful for, try not to overthink things, have a healthier diet. These are all common patronising statements that can be offered as an alternative to medication. Yes, all of these things do help improve mental wellbeing. However, what is not acknowledged by many is that depression and anxiety often result from a chemical imbalance in your brain, not just a lack of exercise or sleep. Going for a run every day does not always cut it.
What is not discussed socially is that thousands of students at university take antidepressants. A year ago, when I was first prescribed citalopram, a common antidepressant, I remember treating it as if it was a dirty secret. I was even reluctant to tell my closest friends, out of fear that they would view me as abnormal or even melodramatic. I soon realised that a lot of people around me were also taking similar medications and there was nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about. The more we discuss the use of antidepressants and create a shame-free community at our university, the more any kind of stigma will dissolve.
Altering your lifestyle for the better is often one step towards improving your mental health. However, this is often not sufficient to help those suffering from moderate or severe depression/anxiety. Antidepressants have helped millions, myself included, and although they certainly do not help everyone, there is absolutely no shame in taking them. Do not suffer in silence.
Image: Tom Varco