More compassion, less scorn: a response to the University Student Mental Health Survey 2018

The findings of the Insight Network’s 2018 student mental health survey make for harrowing reading. In conjunction with the welcome box company Dig-In, the survey gathered responses from 37,500 students across the UK, giving the largest collection of data in its field for the second year running. It’s an excellent method to engage with students who are starting their ‘freshers’ year, but also extending to second and first year undergraduates.

As a graduate who engaged with mental health services on the first week of freshers, the data shows a serious crisis in student mental health. You can read the full report here, but I will list the most alarming findings below.

  • One third of students had experiences a serious personal, emotional or mental health problem requiring professional help.
  • The most likely to report past psychological problems are female, in freshers year, and ethnically white.
  • More than one in five had received professional mental health diagnoses in the past. Again, more likely to report are white, female, and aged between 18–20.
  • Students in their second or third year were more likely to report a mental health diagnosis than general psychological problems.
  • Nearly 12% reported two or more professional mental health diagnoses.
  • Common diagnoses included depression and anxiety (10.2% and 8.4% respectively), bipolar disorder (0.55%), eating disorders (0.54%), personality disorder (0.25%), and autism/attention-related disorders (totalled 0.43%).
  • Feelings of anxiety are widespread with 42% of students reporting they were often or always worried. A shocking 87.7% reported struggling with feelings of anxiety, an increase of 18.7%
  • One third reported high levels of loneliness, with only 20.5% stating they rarely or never felt lonely.
  • Students admitted substance abuse with 44.7% using drugs or alcohol to cope with daily life. 6.9% reported using substances to be able to fall asleep at night.
  • Most worryingly, half of respondents reported thoughts of self-harm. This is a two-fold increase since the 2017 survey, with one in ten admitting more intense thoughts about self-harm.
  • Finally, stigma obstructs three-quarters of those who responded from accessing support. 75.6% reported concealing symptoms from those around them out of fear. (Insight Network notes the statistic to be much higher given this survey being a small sample of the student population.)

If you are a graduate, parent, or even in no way connected to universities — these figures matter. This survey shows just how institutional the suffering of mental health problems is at university. There can be any number of causes for the issues exhibited by this survey. Going to university is not the dreamscape many believe it to be. And while education is its primary directive, many students are clearly showing signs that the culture of university is providing more than just lectures and seminars.

I graduated from my undergraduate in 2016 after three years of hard studying, much harder than I had anticipated. The learning environment and collegiate atmosphere was a joyful experience for me, giving me the impetus to aspire towards academia. However, the pressure of learning coupled with the crippling social aspects created the perfect storm for mental health problems to grow. I was diagnosed in late 2013 with depression and social anxiety, which still continues to bite hard. My personal story is one of thousands, as shown by this survey.

Students are in their nature optimistic and open-minded. Where hometowns can be seen as prisons, the move to university should be a new start for so many school leavers. Opportunity and diversity gives young people an outward looking environment which focuses on their talents. Higher education is a joy, but many are sensing its curse. For many, this step into higher education is a huge canyon filled with social and personal developmental issue. There is a pressure to fulfil this ‘myth of university’ that one must be affable, approachable, and constantly sociable.

It was the social experience that I struggled with the most. I was told by family and teachers that university would be the place where you meet your best man or future partner. You’d find a group of friends you would stay with for life, travel to gorgeous locales, and get obscenely drunk with.

But for someone who didn’t drink on entering freshers, had recently seen his long-term alcoholic mother die from the disease, and generally didn’t like the taste of the devil drink — it was really really hard to fit into a social environment where booze was the boss. This doesn’t mean all students are presented with this problem, but given the level of stigma the Insight Network survey shows — I expect many students are or have faced the same mirrors.

So where can this conversation go? Students are beautiful. They are diverse. They are spending three or more years of their lives with the purpose of improving their life chances. Society and the culture of university should reflect that, not hinder it with pressures and obstacles.

As with all these problems, the culture surrounding university has to be changed. There is a stigma from society, the news, an ‘elder voice’ that students just layabouts who drink, shag, and waste three years of their lives for a piece of paper.

That’s how it feels. Three years of hard mental work just to be called a waster. Yeah sure, you can get as many politicians in a room to praise the students and their fortitude. But when the myths of sex, drugs, and wasted time still pervade society, it’s an uphill struggle.

When a ruddy-faced bigot with a pillow of fat on the back of his neck tells you “I went to the University of Life and got a bloody good grade!! *chuckle chuckle*” your spirit weakens, your efforts sapped.

Students need to be told they mean something.

Lumbering ourselves with stress, debt and anxiety should be worth a better job and a better life. But the experiences for many are far from welcoming after those robes come off at graduation.

These changes can’t come over night. But politics must play a part of what should be happening to ensure the beautiful and talented students are in safe environments, and pursuing their dreams.

Here’s a small list of aspirations:

  • Positive and constructive dialogue between the student body and government, to connect their experiences to workable changes.
  • Better access to graduate schemes and programmes, instead of being left high and dry after three years.
  • A better clinical referral system between university and NHS for mental health cases, with specialist training to treat students
  • University-led openness so students feel more welcome by their educators, and more supported in case of difficulty.
  • Government-led projects to involve students in democracy, and to consider their views beyond the franchise.
  • Above all else — a dedicated independent service to support students through their studies, akin to a ‘job centre’ handling all levels and issues of the student experience.

Okay not so small.

I’m going back to university in October as a PhD student. This will bring its own pressures and pitfalls, and I hope that this survey isn’t a bad omen. But university is truly an institution designed to change lives, either through its students or its research.

And while people may deride the decisions made by our clearly struggling student population, it’s theirs to make. It’s their lives they want to build. The foundations shouldn’t be built with shoddy bricks.

Writer. Regularly irritating. Moans about politics, Brexit, mental health, and culture. All views mine.

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