Mind Matters: The Mental Health Taboo at Universities
By Jinan Younis, The Guardian
One in five students consider themselves to have a mental illness, so why aren’t we talking about it?
"I was depressed and paranoid", "I was anxious and out of control", "I had severe depression, I couldn’t get out of bed and had difficulty speaking to large groups of people".
These are the experiences of a group of students struggling with theirmental health while at university, and they’re not alone. A National Union of Students (NUS) study conducted in May 2013 shows that one in five students consider themselves to have a mental health problem.
So why aren’t we talking about this more?
"Students face a particular set of challenges that can leave some struggling to cope," says Colum McGuire, NUS welfare vice president. Students are under tremendous pressure to succeed academically, to maintain a healthy social life, and many that don’t fit into the traditional 18 year old just-left-home model also face difficulty juggling their university life with other commitments.
The lack of dialogue leaves many sufferers feeling isolated. Rebecca Latz, a first year student at the University of Huddersfield suffered with anxiety when she first started university. She describes feeling “abnormal” in comparison to her peers: “My friends were all really chilled out. I was the only really obviously anxious one.”
Habiba Khanom, a third-year student at City University London, suffered from an eating disorder, depression and social anxiety. She says: “I felt like I had no one to talk to. I found it hard to make friends because I felt like if I told someone, they wouldn’t want to be friends with me.”
When mental health is discussed, it is often met with a patronizing response, albeit with good intentions.
Students are sometimes told “there’s nothing to panic about”, people often don’t know what to say, and one anonymous student felt as though the people she spoke to were “missing the point entirely”.
This misunderstanding of mental health problems can lead to its sufferers feeling increasingly burdensome and some may retreat into further isolation.
One anonymous student says: “When people begin to feel a burden and shut off it becomes a real problem.”
There needs to be a shift in the way that we view and speak about mental health. The stigma attached to mental health problems is damaging to those that need to voice their experiences. The fear of being misunderstood, of being embarrassed or of being patronised, smothers those that are in search of care or a listening ear.
At universities there are counselling services in place to help those who are struggling with mental health problems, but are they doing enough? One anonymous student says it took him six weeks to get an appointment with his university’s counselling service, and another says the lack of emotional support she received from her university left her feeling “afraid of asking anyone for help entirely”.
Chris Leaman, policy manager at Young Minds, says: “Students feel that universities only care about the results and they’re not investing in their welfare. Some universities have not had a clear policy and route to help students out with mental health”
Alan Percy, a representative of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and head of the counselling service at the University of Oxford, fears that newer universities may “slash all support services” to offer “bargain price” degrees at lower fees.
Campaigns to change the stigma around mental health are spreading across UK universities. Time for Change aims to encourage people to speak openly about mental health.
Yet students can still fall through the net, and Nightline, a helpline which provides emotional support to students, is only present in 90 UK universities and colleges.
In the NUS study into mental health, only one in ten of students surveyed went to the university authorities for help. We may be moving forward in talking about mental health, but we still have a way to go.
Mental health fluctuations affect us all, some more than others. We need to ensure that the correct systems are in place for everyone. The way to do that is to speak openly about mental health and remove the stigma which silences sufferers of mental health problems.
Students need to be reassured that they will get complete support from the university if they are having trouble with their mental health; and should be aware that these systems of support exist and that they should never be ashamed to use them.
We need to create safe environments where those struggling with mental health can talk about their experiences, both with other students and in counseling spaces. We all have a responsibility to be open and continue this conversation about mental health. Because no one should go through this alone.
If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this piece, contact Samaritans or Nightline.
Have you experienced a mental health issue at university? Share your story anonymously in our GuardianWitness assignment to help us create a true picture of mental health at university.
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