Dear fellow students;
How are you doing? Like, really doing? For those that are feeling good, I’m glad. I hope it stays that way. For those who are not so good, for those who struggle daily – although it may not seem like it, things will get better. The thoughts that sometimes dominate your mental state may seem overwhelming at times, especially at this stressful point in your life, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Whether you are a fresher embarking on this new chapter in your life, or a third year worrying about an end project, mental distress impacts all of us. You are not alone.
First, there is a big difference between a poor mental state and mental illness. Everyone has mental health, like our physical health, but not all people will struggle with a mental illness. Mental health is talking about our mental well-being, our emotions, our thoughts and feelings. Mental illness is an illness that impacts our mental well-being. It is important to distinguish between these two whilst looking at the distress some students face.
For most, university is a ‘fresh start’, a time to get away from home life and be yourself, to meet new people and have new experiences. University is often presumed to be ‘the best years of your life.’ For some this is true, taking to the university life like a duck to water and immersing themselves in student culture. But it can also be dangerous. It can lead to students feeling under pressure before they even arrive. This pressure could lead them into situations that can be detrimental to their mental and physical health, such as heavy drinking and drug use. It has been shown in several studies that alcohol and drug use correlate with poor mental health, either increasing the risk of underlying mental issues or making symptoms of a pre-existing mental health condition worse. So being in an environment where basically every student is constantly surrounded by these temptations surely cannot be good for health.
The student lifestyle is also romanticised. This leads individuals into a mindset of ‘I am at university so I must be going out and having fun constantly, otherwise there is something wrong with me.’ Obviously, this is unhealthy; it starts a cycle where we suppress all negative feelings and portray ourselves as happy and okay, when most of the time we are not. These acts of repression can lead to further difficulty down the road. I was recently in a lecture where we were shown the results of a survey we had to take regarding lying. When asked what the last thing we lied about was, over a third of the students surveyed said they lied about being happy. This was met with a mutter around the room, highlighting the issue at hand.
So why are students especially vulnerable to mental distress? The elephant is the room is the stress of the workload that comes with continuing into higher education, coupled with the fact that students go from being ‘spoon-fed’ answers to mostly independent learning. This can aggravate feelings of inadequacy and ‘not being good enough.’ Time management is arguably the most important skill you can have whilst studying at university. If done correctly it allows you to stay on top of your work, manage your social life and fit in some time to relax. But if students enter university without this skill, they can easily become overwhelmed and start spiralling out of control. Another factor could be loneliness. For the most part university is a big place, with opportunities for socialising aplenty, so on the surface loneliness shouldn’t be prevalent. But that’s not what loneliness is. Loneliness is an emotional isolation, rather than a social isolation, so this can range from not having a support group to just not feeling comfortable talking about how you really feel. Whilst loneliness is not a mental illness as such, they are strongly linked. Feeling lonely can have a negative impact on your mental health and having poor mental health can lead to an increased chance of loneliness, starting a vicious cycle.
To be blunt, most students suffer because they do not understand what is happening to them. What this can attributed to is debatable; some say it is education at a lower level, some say it is the stigma attached. Either way this needs to be addressed. Sometimes these intense feelings of discontent are new and worrying for students. If these symptoms are left untreated it can lead to an increase in alcohol consumption, drug misuse, self-harm and vulnerability to suicide. On top of this, it can lead to students dropping out, with figures rising from 380 students dropping out in 2009/10 to 1,180 in 2014/15. This is an overall increase of 210%. In my opinion I think it is safe to say that is an epidemic and something needs to be done sooner rather than later.
We cannot live in a state of permanent ecstasy. If we keep using these acts as coping mechanisms it will only worsen our mental states. As much as it may seem that these activities dull these worries, they are not going to go away. The answer is to stand up and speak openly about our distress. For those who do not feel able to, that strength will come. I believe in you. The message to take away from this isn’t that you shouldn’t partake in these activities. The message is to not fear mental distress. It doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human.
So, scream and shout. Let the world know that this is normal. Do not let the distress win. You are strong. You are loved. You can do this.
If you are struggling with your mental health, find out about the university’s counselling service here.
If you prefer to talk to someone anonymously, please call Nightline on 0151 795 8100. Lines are open from 8pm-8am every night during term time.