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Student perspectives on mental health and university: how are UK students really feeling?

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Being in my fourth year at university, you could say I’ve learnt a lot about student life:

its highs and its lows; the lazy days and the ‘not enough hours in the day’ days; the amazing memories and the ones you’d (maybe) rather forget. It’s these moments that allow you to change and grow, enabling you to leave campus a different person than when you stepped in. However, student living can also be filled with a lot of personal struggles and, in the last couple of years, students have had it tougher than most: enduring university under the backdrop of a global pandemic that saw us all shut our doors, cover our faces and stay inside - left to communicate through our phone, tablet and computer screens. To understand more deeply the modern experience of a UK student, I talked to some of my peers to gain some insight about university, mental health and what they think could be done to improve mental health services at universities in the years to come. 

A new beginning 

I was very excited to move away from home, move to a new city, meet new people and, generally, to do something new.

University is an exciting time. But, it’s one that can also be stressful. In partnership with Cibyl, Accenture conducted a survey of 12,000 students across 140 UK universities in 2020. In the study, it found that 68% of students experience exam and deadline-related stress. In our conversations, my peers agreed to experiencing high levels of work-related stress but also highlighted other exterior pressures such as, friendships, relationships, money and future prospects. On the surface, it seemed like students knew how to handle stress by doing relaxing activities such as, painting, yoga or hanging out with friends. 

If I get overwhelmed with work, I will have a break by getting a change of scenery, go out with friends or go on a walk to distract myself.

However, although as students, we may think we can look after ourselves, we often need extra support. My peers said they feel supported by their friends and confident in their level of honesty and communication. But not all students are lucky enough to have these relationships and even the closest of friends may be silently suffering. From Accenture’s study, it’s clear that extra resources are needed, as 60% of students stated they wouldn’t know where to get help for their friends, or even themselves. For most, getting help outside of university services is out of the question due to finances.  

Seeking help when it’s needed

I luckily have a really great support system of friends and family and I’m aware of community initiatives. However, finding free or cheap ways to get support is quite challenging as a young person.

How aware are students of mental health services available at university? Most admitted that, while they are aware of services available, they are unaware of how to access them. In fact, most highlighted the difficulty of getting accepted onto programs in the first place. With long waiting lists and a lack of availability, students are almost discouraged to seek help before they even try. 

I used the therapy service when my grandad passed away, which was helpful, although the waiting list is really long and it’s only short term.

My own personal experience with counselling services at university have been similar. When seeking help during lockdown, I was met with a long process that was disheartening. I got the opportunity to have a single session consultation that would determine if I was eligible for further sessions. However, this also felt discouraging. Although I understand the lack of resources available (high demand for services paired with a lack of staff and funding isn’t the best combination), it felt like I was being tested to see if my problems were worthy enough. Although I did get forwarded on for further sessions, these were also hard to arrange and resulted with the university stopping responding to my emails altogether. Luckily, I had a great support group at university and at home. This experience made me think about the students in desperate need for these services who don’t have the support. What happens when the university stops replying to their emails, leaving them with no one else to turn to? 

…from what I’ve heard, there seems to be a lack of sensitivity for people in need of the services.

Hope and help on the horizon

It’s not all doom and gloom. When speaking to a friend about her experience with 

services at university, she offered a perspective that was more optimistic and hopeful. 

When I first started to see the effects of my degree build up into intense anxiety and panic attacks, I sought after my university’s mental health resources, in particular counselling. Although my experience at university had become really quite hard, the support I received was amazing. I was assigned a truly fabulous counsellor who helped me through my darker times and lifted me out - giving me tools and resources. She also helped me get a dyslexia and dyspraxia diagnosis (ADD), which changed my life drastically. The mental health support at my university was really, really good and I believe it to be unlike other universities.

While my experience wasn’t the best, it’s not reflective of everyone’s. Perhaps this is an important reminder that it’s easy to report the bad and even easier to forget the good. Despite this, the statistics speak for themselves. The Office For National Statistics declared that, in 2017, a student took their own life every four days. I asked my peers what improvements they think could be made. They highlighted that there needed to be more accessible information about university services provided by emails, flyers and the lecturers themselves. They also drew attention to the systemic issues that meant that a lack of funding, staff and training enable these resources to fall short.

Employ more people within the department and appoint more funding to those services so they can be improved. I personally haven’t seen much information on how the university can help students in this way. I think the university should utilise more ways to increase awareness of the services for the students.

Despite a massive increase in mental health awareness, it’s clear that more needs to be done to support university students. Even though problems, such as funding, may be out of our control, we can all do our bit. Instead of dropping students off at campus and leaving them to fend for themselves, let’s hold their hand and support them along their academic journey.

Find out more about mental health services at universities and how to help. Govox check ins are designed to be short and unintrusive to help universities support student wellbeing and improve happiness. 

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