Mental health at university: the biggest issue facing students today
"I saw myself nearing the edge of a very slippery slope, without a clue on how to claw my way back."
As students, we go into university expecting it to be the best time of our life. After all, that's the idea we've been sold by parents, teachers and the universities themselves. Looking into any prospectus you will find some variation of the same picture: students sat around laughing in the sun, laptops balanced on their knees without a care in the world. For some people this experience rings true; the friendship and freedom of uni life is unparalleled.
However there is a side to university life that is left out of brochures, a side that a quick Google search reveals claimed the lives of 146 students in 2016 alone.
Our universities are facing a mental health crisis.
I only cried once in the first term of uni, a few tears when it came time for my parents to leave. Fresher's Week was a blur, and months of making new friends flew past. I felt settled, happy and even a little sad at the thought of leaving it all behind for the Christmas holidays. My friends and I messaged every day over those four weeks and couldn't wait to get back to them in January. But in my final week at home, things spiralled in a very frightening direction.
On New Year's Eve I had my first panic attack. I didn't know what it was at the time. In typical student style, I had left an essay fairly last minute. By next week I needed 2500 words written on some poems I had been studying since A-Level. It had seemed easy enough, but as I read through the list of essay questions my confidence disappeared. For an unbearably long time, all I could do was stare at my laptop screen while panic inched its way through my entire body.
The next morning was the start of a cycle which lasted for the next few days. I would get up, make a breakfast which I couldn't eat for feeling sick, open my laptop and immediately start to tear up. My mind was so turbulent that nothing I wrote made sense: I had sentences running on for eight lines, large gaps where I couldn't formulate an idea, and so many sheets of notes that were barely legible. I felt desperate.
Just a few days ago I had felt hopeful, celebrating Christmas with my family, but now I couldn't imagine anything past the end of this week. If I failed this essay what would happen to me? I convinced myself I'd be kicked out of uni, letting everyone down and left totally directionless. University work was all I could think about and, as hard as I tried, I couldn't see any way out of the tunnel I was descending into. I started to shut down, only truly realising how serious things were becoming when all rationality left me and I began to believe that the only way out of this week was to die. I saw myself nearing the edge of a very slippery slope, without a clue on how to claw my way back.
Of course I got through that week. My mum could see something was wrong and she helped me to phone the uni and sort things out. I was granted an extension on the essay, I saw my doctor and I found professionals working at my university who could help me. But I didn't leave my problems behind in that week; for a while I felt totally numb, home felt miserable and my mum worried about me constantly. Every new piece of work set is still accompanied by a fear of going back to that place, invites to hang out with friends can leave me anxious that I should be working instead, and I know that attending the first lecture in my second year will be difficult. The panic attacks still come back.
But I was lucky. I was at home when my problems began, but those who suffer from mental health issues while living away at university often do so in silence. While universities have made provisions, in the form of counsellors and welfare tutors, so many of those struggling do not know how to access these services. But possibly the biggest oversight comes from the fact that many universities will not inform parents if their son or daughter is mentally ill. As ridiculous as it may sound, at most universities your parents will not be informed even if you are feeling suicidal. We are now adults and so data protection stands in the way of families knowing about the well being of their sons and daughters.
Slowly, things are beginning to change. Not only are we far more aware of mental health issues today, but those at the top are beginning to take notice. Speaking about mental health among students, Universities minister, Sam Gyimah, called for "mental health support for students to be a top priority for the leadership of all our universities." In a new charter he hopes to explore the option of an opt-in policy, which would allow students to give their university permission to share information with parents or guardians. Bristol University, which was rocked by the deaths of three students over this May exam period alone, has received praise after introducing such a policy, and 94% of both new and returning students have already opted in.
This may be a step in the right direction, but it comes too late for some. Why has it taken so long for such a simple measure to be put into place? One of the deaths that prompted the introduction of Bristol University's new policy was that of 119-year-old Ben Murray, who took his own life after falling behind in his studies. His father, James, has called for universities to take action, saying "data privacy that may cause the vulnerable to lose their lives makes no sense at all."
With the new term having just begun, many students are returning to a place where mental health struggles are an unmanageable daily part of life. We must demand that universities follow Bristol in placing a more serious focus on mental health and hope that those suffering in silence will reach out to their universities.