Students share their experiences of mental health issues and reveal a common and worrying problem
When I asked students to share their experiences of mental health at university, I had no idea of the reaction it would receive. Over five days we received over 200 stories. Many entries we weren’t able to include, for legal reasons or because the experiences described were too harrowing to publish.
Originally planned to stay open for two weeks, we decided to close the project early because there wasn’t the capacity to moderate the influx of entries. Each morning we were met with more stories – from students who opened up about their anxieties and struggles.
If you are reading this and are dealing with a mental health issue yourself – you are not alone.
Students shared stories of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Some spoke of diagnosed conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder, and the distructive effect these conditions sometimes have on their education. When it came to lesser-known issues such as borderline personality disorder, students spoke of a lack of understanding about what they were going through. Others talked about the embarrassment they felt about asking for help.
Some were as yet undiagnosed but clearly struggling: “I stay up all night crying” was a common phrase.
No one tells you that university might be difficult, said students. You were sold on stories from your older friends and the glossy prospectus – there are no footnotes about loneliness and disillusionment. One anonymous student said: “As a fresher you are constantly reminded that this is supposed to be the ‘time of your life’. When it feels like the worst time of your life you feel both a sense of guilt and a pressure to keep these negative thoughts to yourself.”
Another said: “I spent the first few weeks of uni hiding in my dorm room crying my eyes out. I was homesick and wasn’t sure if I wanted to be there at all.”
Mental health issues can start in childhood, and many students spoke about a history of depression or self-harming that they carried to university. But a new life can add pressures.”My depression and anxiety started some time before I came to university, but leaving home, being in an extremely taxing social environment and being under large academic pressure all took their toll on me,” said one student.
Another said: “Getting tubes or being anywhere I didn’t know felt uncertain. I always had a burning, itching, tormenting anxiety bubbling in my chest. At the time, my boyfriend had no comprehension of mental illness and would regularly tell me panic attacks didn’t exist, that I was stupid and that I had no friends.”
Managing your studies alongside a mental health issue can be a daily struggle. “Panic attacks followed by depression meant things rapidly spiralled out of control,” said one student.
“I found I simply couldn’t think straight and my short term memory became terrible. The best description I could muster was that it felt as though the entire world had been rotated very slightly and nothing was the same anymore.”
Another student said: “I’m absolutely terrified of being in social situations in which I don’t know the people I’m speaking to – seminars are a nightmare. I’ve often missed my contact hours because I’ve been up all night crying and stressing and can’t face going in.
“I don’t feel like I can tell my tutors why I’m missing their classes, because I feel like they won’t believe me as I haven’t been officially diagnosed.”
Others said the stress of deadlines and feedback from tutors contributed. One student said: “I had a burn-out from the pressure of juggling nine modules. One of the triggers was some negative feedback I recieved in writing from a lecturer which included the word terrible. It was hard to get family support as they live far away.”
Students expressed a general feeling that university support services were helpful – when they could access them. After suffering from a severe anxiety attack, one student took the step to contact their university counselling service. They said: “I’d put it off for so long, but finally I defined myself as ‘mentally ill’. It did take a few weeks for them to back to me, but nothing can describe the relief I felt when a therapist for the first time said to me, ‘that must be really hard’. Yeah, it was hard! Finally, someone who understood, who didn’t tell me to snap out of it.”
But others are still struggling. “When I started my undergraduate degree I did the responsible thing and informed my supervisor that I had depression,” said one anonymous student, who has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “He informed me that in his opinion depression was a girls issue and he didn’t know what to do with girls issues and sent me on my way.”
Another student said: “My university supported me in my decision to suspend my studies and have helped me get back on track to resume my studies in September, yet I can’t help feel more could have been done to help me, before I reached breaking point.”
What do students think needs to be done? Education needs to start early. An anonymous student said: “People need to know what signs to look for in their friends. They need to understand that depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD and bipolar are illnesses, not character flaws.”The support and education about them need to be on par with the education we get about other medical issues. If we learn about it in school, we will be more prepared when we get to university.”
At this year’s National Union of Students (NUS) conference, a motion will be discussed that urges student unions to move “away from awareness, towards action”. It calls for training for staff, integrating mental health into the widening participation agenda, better advertising for support services, and an ensurance that academic policies do not cause additional mental distress to students who experience mental health issues.
Now is the time for action. But the response to our call to share stories shows that there are still many young people who want to talk.
What you said
“I thought everything was my fault and I was just defective and bad and that this was what I deserved from life. I missed out on social life and extra-curricular activities because I struggled with acute feelings of social anxiety, self-hatred and fear. Now I have access to support, I can support others, too, and that’s the best feeling I could ask for.”
“I hope my words might help some of you to see that you really aren’t the only one. In my opinion, searching out for help in whatever small way you can manage, really is the best thing.”
“Mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of and affect almost everybody and it’s about time everyone realised this and stopped skirting round the subject and faced it head-on. ”
“One thing I’ve found is that so many more people than you realise suffer from mental illnesses. As I’ve talked to friends, more and more of them have been telling me that they too suffer from the same things I do, or they have in the past.”
“No matter how bad it gets and how much you think there is no hope and let your depression take over, you can always dig yourself out of that hole and find a way to manage your depression and you are not alone.”
“Get help, be heard, let yourself be supported. You’re important.”
Read the rest of the contributions to the GuardianWitness assignment here.
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