Tackling the growing student mental health crisis

When I began university, I was your typical student; eager to make friends, anxious to do my best in a new environment, and a little stressed about the workload (though not so much that I didn’t online shop and binge-watch Netflix for hours only to regret it later!). But the change of environment, my new living dynamic, the coursework deadlines – and the general stress of being at uni – turned out to be more than I could handle.

Mental health is regularly in the news these days and, because of my personal experiences, I have a particular interest in student mental health. I wanted to explore student experiences in more depth so, as part of my internship here at Razor, I interviewed fourteen students from a number of universities around the UK. What soon became clear is that universities could be doing so much more to support student mental health.

First year blues
The time has finally come. You have your own space and no parents around telling you to wash your dishes and clean your room. You have so much freedom! But that’s exactly it … it’s just you. Yes, the independence is empowering and exciting – but being surrounded by strangers can also be really daunting. Some people tend to retreat from situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Most of the students I spoke to had felt homesick, isolated and overwhelmed by their new living dynamic during their first year. They were expecting freshers’ week to be the best of their lives but, in reality, it was the complete opposite! I get that; it’s tiring, you’re skint, you’re usually away from home and you’re convinced that you must socialise in order to be a ‘real’ student.

“People can feel lonely and isolated. There could be more social opportunities.”

  • How to help: To improve their experience, students suggested having activities offered to them by their academic departments or halls to help them bond with their flat/course mates, rather than being left to organise things for themselves. Physical exercise, yoga and meditation could also be at the forefront to help promote more social interaction along with a healthier lifestyle.

An intense workload
I remember my first ever deadline. I wanted to cry <insert Kim Kardashian crying emoji> and put my head through a wall because I felt so tense. The intensity and depth of my degree was not at all what I was expecting and many of the students I spoke to confirmed that I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. We didn’t know about any well-being services that our university offered. It wasn’t mentioned at the start of the year, during freshers’ week, or exam periods. Finding services to help was like trying to find the culprit who stole your milk – impossible. Students, (especially final year) prioritised revision over their mental well-being, with some being in the library for 14 hours a day! But the most universities did for students was to advertise a number for Nightline, which for many felt too distant rather than a personal approach.

“The workload is intense, especially in your third year. It could cause someone’s mental health to deteriorate. Going from college to first year of uni is a big jump which explains why there’s such a high dropout rate.”

  • How to help: Students would benefit from regular support text messages and email updates, as well as reminders before and after lectures, seminars and examinations. Doing this would reinforce the support services and be highly impactful.

Social stigma
Unfortunately, there’s still a big stigma attached to mental health – especially with males. It saddens me that there are some who won’t seek support because it’s still seen as a sign of weakness; not to mention the self-stigma of feeling a burden to others. Despite there being a high suicide rate amongst male students, people don’t want to admit there’s something seriously wrong. Universities could actively normalise mental health by having regular workshops and making announcements to encourage students to speak out. This would certainly bring the idea of what it means to be a ‘man’ out of the Stone Age and into the present day.  

“People don’t associate men with crying and expressing how they feel. You can’t show anything otherwise it’s a sign of weakness. But when I come home the tears would flow like a tap.”

  • How to help: A mental health platform, on the same awareness scale as UCAS, for all students to help educate them about coping and normalising their mental health.

A long wait
I remember trying out the support services during my third year because my dissertation was driving me insane. The experience felt like an episode of Friends in reverse where nobody’s there for you! There was an awkward middle-aged man staring at me repeatedly asking “so what’s wrong?” for an hour. It was as awkward as kissing with braces or saying goodbye to someone only to end up walking in the same direction as them. I waited three weeks … for this?! Other students also felt the services offered were inadequate. Either the counsellor wasn’t emotionally available, or they had other priorities. Students were also unaware that they could ask for a female counsellor.

“My uni has the money but they don’t want to spend it on mental health which feels ridiculous. Students know there aren’t enough counsellors and the long waiting time puts them off from trying to get help.”

  • How to help: Students suggested that universities could provide a variation of counsellors of different genders and backgrounds. Most importantly, someone who’s kind, willing to listen, and concentrates on emotions. A helpful tip is knowing you don’t need to be registered with a GP in order to access mental health services at university!

There’s a clear need for universities to be doing more and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. I recommend checking out Time to Change; a wonderful and growing movement to change how we think about mental health. The website includes personal stories, videos and resources to help you, or anyone you know, with mental health troubles.

If you know anyone struggling, or in distress, simply be there for them and encourage them to talk just by asking how they are. It doesn’t have to be a lot but showing them you’re in their corner will make a world of difference.

It’s time to change!