Cheap drinks. Student loans. All-nighters at the library. Life at university is sold as one long party and the promise that these three years are meant to be the best of your life is rarely questioned. With the focus purely on academic woes and wild freshers, mental health is a hidden side to university that is all too often brushed under the carpet.
University life can be a challenge even for the most resilient of people. Mounting pressure from increased independence, budget handling, new methods of study, overwhelming social situations and homesickness are only a handful of the things that a fresher has to worry about.
And where mild mental health issues might already exist, having the securities of a familiar environment snatched from under your feet at one of the most vulnerable periods in your life can prove overwhelming for almost anyone.
It is no secret then that student cases of mental health issues at university are on the rise. One in eight undergraduates are reporting a mental health condition of some kind, according to a new survey by YouGov and YouthSight, and with universities consistently coming under harsh scrutiny for failing to provide adequate support, student mental health is reaching crisis point.
With many students reporting that the care received has been less than sufficient, it comes as little surprise to some that The Tab’s most recent report on mental health in universities places The University of Manchester fourteenth out of twenty one in the national Mental Health Rankings, factoring in student satisfaction and the amount of money budgeted for counselling services.
In particular, long waiting times have left many feeling extremely isolated, with the average student currently not receiving care until up to 25 days after requesting an appointment.
We spoke to one former student at The University of Manchester, who in fact cut short her studies prematurely due to a serious period of depression, about why she thought the university’s services could not do enough for her.
She tells us that she was made to wait a whole four weeks for an initial session with a one-on-one counsellor. When she was eventually seen, her experience was, to say the least, discouraging.
“The woman I saw at the university kept insisting I join a self-help group, which if she had any sort of understanding of my case she would have known that I was way too far gone and severely unstable to propose that as an option”.
Once she had made the decision to leave, after a long battle with juggling study alongside her worsening condition, she claims to have found pastoral care from academic advisors and administrative staff more accommodating.
“They were far more sympathetic”.
And her local services, once she had returned home, even better.
However the university, while acknowledging that it has a way to go, assures that they are invested in improving the services for students.
When asked to comment on The Tab’s report, the University said that: “We recognise that there is still more to do. This year we have increased the working days of the mental health nurse at the Counselling Service, we are developing an online training in Mental Health and Risk Awareness in order to provide this to a wider range of staff, and we continue to develop the wide range of preventative and supportive resources available for students.”
They added also that they “are keen to receive feedback about what further improvements we can make.”
In addition to this, the University of Manchester’s Students’ Union’s newly elected Wellbeing Officer, Isabel Gurbuz, states that this year she will be placing a priority on “lobbying for the university to provide more funding to counselling in order to reduce waiting times.”
It is unsurprising that, with a combination of stretched budgets, government cuts and pressure on the NHS, the universities cannot always provide their own top-standard services. In fact, it is all too often left to their less qualified chaplaincies and peer mentors to care for students struggling with severe mental health conditions while they wait for appointments for psychiatric treatment.
Another student that we spoke to found that “whilst the people working for the counselling services do seem to be kind and caring and genuinely want the best for every student, they lack the tools to deal with situations that aren’t incredibly extreme.”
“Most coping strategies I’ve used I had to develop myself, and I don’t think that’s acceptable for a university of this size, with this amount of spending power.”
Furthermore, the demand for counselling services is rapidly growing simultaneously with the complexity of problems that student mental health conditions present, to the point that some services are being forced to restrict the help offered to individuals, so as to support the increasing numbers in need, particularly before stressful times of exams and deadlines.
“There was a point where I really needed help and I was given one-to-one sessions, except it was fairly time sensitive and I was always aware of how much time I had left.”
“That isn’t a reflection on them, I don’t think. The problem isn’t really the services, the people are lovely and work hard to help, it’s that they are not given the chance to do as much as they could.”
In the same way, the issue is not helped by the taboo around speaking about mental health issues. A recent study by the National Union of Students (NUS) has revealed that 54 per cent of students claiming concern for their own mental health do not seek out the necessary help.
The problem being that often those most in need of help are those most uncomfortable or resistant to seeking it out. The stigma ascribed to such problems is damaging to those silent sufferers that it renders too afraid to voice their concerns.
One organisation at the forefront of addressing this issue is Student Minds—the UK’s leading student mental health charity—which has several campaigns that aim to promote awareness about mental health problems and self-care among student communities.
Their campaigns such as ‘Best Night In’ put the emphasis on reclaiming the often told social media narrative that the only way to have fun is to go out drinking. Another, ‘Look After Your Mate’, aims to give students the knowledge and skills needed to identify in their friends the signs of a mental health problem.Whitworth Hall, University of Manchester Photo: Mike Peel, Wikimedia Commons
In addition, for much of the time, the help that is readily available is not yet advertised to its full potential. An NUS study disclosed that a third of students said they would not know where to get mental health support from at their college or university if they needed it. Hence the necessity for freshers to have this information instantly, regarding mental health services, at their fingertips.
Most notably, the university’s counselling services are there to offer confidential sessions to help students manage their mental wellbeing. They provide advice as to where to find further help and can make referrals to NHS mental health services. They also offer a wide range of daily workshops open to all, with the aim of providing structured opportunities to address difficulties. The Advice Service at the Students’ Union is also on call for a wide range of issues, including general wellbeing, as well as things like housing or finance.
For first years living in halls, it is a good idea to get to know your Residential Life Advisors (RLA) who are the first point of contact that you can reach out to if you are having any difficulties, including concerns about your mental wellbeing or about acclimatising to university. An RLA will always be available, even to give out-of-hours support to students 365 days-a-year, and they live on-site in halls of residence with students, so they are always around to offer advice or provide access to further help.
When you need some confidential advice for late-night worries and anxiety, Manchester Nightline provides a listening and information service that gives an anonymous way to talk to an impartial volunteer. They can give non-judgmental advice or even just be someone to talk to. It is run by student volunteers that are there to chat about anything and everything—so if you are not feeling sure about who you can talk to, ring them between 8pm to 8am via the number on the back of your student card.
It is important to note that for anyone feeling that they are in risk or in crisis, the university offers urgent same-day appointments with a university mental health nurse and psychiatrist.
Though student wellbeing will always be at the heart of the university’s values, the treatment of mental health, without doubt, deserves more attention than it is being given. The Office for National Statistics has reported that student suicides are at a national high—up from 100 in 2013, to 134 in 2015.
The fact that many students feel their cries for help are only heard when it is almost too late highlights the need for more comprehensive care from the early stages of a student seeking support, in order to prevent such tragedies from escalating in the future.
One student, who wishes to remain anonymous, echoes this view, in sharing her experience: “The first time I rang they bluntly asked if I had thought about killing myself and as I had I found the question quite crude and off putting. I put the phone down and didn’t try again.”
And another was left feeling that “if you’re not at the end of your rope there isn’t much they can do for you.”
We all have a collective responsibility to normalise mental health discourse and to ensure that students do not leave university because of these issues, or harm themselves as a result of them.
Though university counselling and support services cannot claim to get rid of all problems, they can be there to provide the appropriate care that, for many, could make a huge difference. The next step then is to ensure that all students are aware that these systems of support exist and that they should not be ashamed to use them.
In this way we can achieve a culture that encourages people to speak out when struggling with mental health, and where no one is left to suffer alone.
University, in fact, could bring the best years of your life, with the right support. While there is no saying it will not be a rollercoaster of a ride, for the most part it should be a fun and gratifying experience!
If you are feeling like you need some help, use the upcoming Wellbeing Week (5-10 October) as an opportunity to explore new ways to look after yourself at university.
Additionally, head over to the mental healthy charity’s website, Mind, for more information on their Five Ways to Wellbeing plan, and visit here for more information on the Counselling Service, to make an appointment, and for online guides and self-help tools.