Adjusting to university life is not easy. Once the joy of getting into the uni and course of their choice wears off, many students — away from the easy familiarity of home for the first time — are shocked at how vulnerable they can feel. Everyone else seems confident, beautiful and brilliant while you think you’re alone in secretly stressing about your intellect, your ability to fit into a new circle and your future prospects.
The competitive ethos and the additional pressures of social media have led to mental illness becoming a real issue for the current generation of students. Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Press Association revealed that, in Russell Group institutions alone, 43,000 students accessed counselling services in the 2014-15 academic year. Three years earlier it was 34,000, so this 28% leap is significantly higher than the rise in student numbers at these 24 leading universities over the same period, at 3%.
Dr Dominique Thompson, a GP and honorary secretary of the Student Health Association, and director of the University of Bristol’s Students’ Health Service, says: “Six years ago, one in five consultations was to do with mental health, now it’s one in two. There is a disproportionate number of students with significant disorders that are affecting their daily living.”
The counselling sector has noticed an increase in demand that is stretching the resources available. Jeremy Christey, a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) specialist and counselling psychologist who chairs the university and colleges division of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy, says that on average, nationally, the ratio is one counsellor to 5,000 students. To meet demand, it should be nearer to 1:1,500.
“Nationally, we see about 12% of the student population, and that figure is increasing by about 10% every year,” Christey says. “The largest group we see are those with anxiety and depression who are facing adjustment difficulties and navigating new emotions.”
Starting at university involves a huge transition. Students generally relocate, leaving a network of friends and family. New-found independence, relationships and lifestyle can be daunting and, without previous experience to draw on, can lead to young people making mistakes. Add to that the pressure of academia, all-nighters, deadlines and continuous assessment, and a young person’s psyche can buckle.
A YouGov report last month showed that the main cause of stress for the 1,061 students asked was study, at seven out of 10. The second biggest was worry about finding a future job, 39%; followed by family problems, 35%; and part-time student working and relationships, both at 23%.
University of Bristol law graduate Magdalena Krzyzewska suffered from anxiety, depression and panic attacks throughout her four years of study. “The jump to university is quite shocking for most people; everyone is so clever and you can easily feel out of your depth,” she says. “I had tonsillitis and had to take some time off and then there was this massive backlog of work.” For Krzyzewska, catching up led to insomnia, which caused her to miss further classes through exhaustion. Then the anxiety started and she began to isolate herself.
According to a survey of 1,093 students by the National Union of Students published last winter, 78% said they had experienced mental health issues during the year. About 33% said they had felt suicidal, which rose to 55% among those who did not identify as heterosexual.
Suffering in silence seems to be the norm: 54% reported they did not seek help. A third said they would not know where to get support and 40% felt they would be anxious about the assistance that would be available to them. “The earlier you intervene, the better the outcome,” Thompson says. “If you let your anxiety or other symptoms escalate, it can have a snowball effect.”
Figures published by the Office of National Statistics in May showed that the rate of student suicide was at its highest level since numbers were first recorded in 2007. Two years ago there were 130 suicides in England and Wales among full-time students aged 18 or above. Of those, 97 were men and 33 women.
“Many students come to me the night before final exams start. They tell me they’ve been feeling like this for nine months,” Thompson explains. “Of course the university will help by suspending exams, but I have to ask myself why didn’t they come before? It doesn’t have to get that desperate or bad.”
Krzyzewska says:“You feel broken inside, you don’t think rationally. The support of a counsellor, GP and personal tutor that Bristol gave me I will be forever grateful for.”
According to Thompson, the questions that prospective students should be asking include: does the university have a mental health strategy? Does it look after its staff’s mental health and train them so they can look after their students? Does it have good links with the local GP? And what services, such as counselling or mindfulness classes, are on offer to help combat stress?
“People talk about mental health now and they know there is a significant difference between homesickness or first-day anxiety, and eating disorders, self-harming or social phobia,” Thompson says.
“So when you go to your open days, seek out the services available and ask what would you do if you became anxious or depressed. Today, it isn’t weird to ask that.”
TIPS TO AVOID MELTDOWN
■ Adopt a healthy lifestyle which includes a good diet, exercise and sleep
■ Register with your GP
■ Check out the counselling services available
■ Avoid excessive drinking and all drug use
■ Do one thing a week that involves pure relaxation
■ If you already have a condition, continue the treatment
■ Look out for one another — colleagues, housemates and friends
■ Discuss problems with a confidant
■ Don’t forget to stay connected with your home support network
For more health care advice download the ESC student healthcare app from Apple https://appsto.re/gb/ZCQU3.i