Older generations have a tendency to go misty eyed when it comes to university life, whipping out memories of their golden, youthful days at the mere mention of lecture halls. Today’s freshers are familiar with the idea that these years are ‘the time of your life’.
The reality is much less rose-tinted. Far from a carefree time of youthful experimentation, knowledge for knowledge’s sake and the postponement of a nine to five grind, more than ever before the current student experience is likely to include serious mental health difficulties. An NUS survey in 2013 found that a fifth of students now consider themselves as having a mental health problem.
Of course, exams have always been a cause of stress; looming deadlines and reading lists are perennial concerns. And behind most misty eyes are memories of emotional strife, whether heartbreak, family worries or flatmate drama. These things are not new. However (at the risk of being deemed another whiny, over-entitled millennial), the dramatic increase in students considering themselves as suffering from mental illness cannot be dismissed as youthful agitation. Too often the issue is shrouded in a narrative of ‘over-sensitivity’ – the idea being that the extra numbers needing help are somehow jumping on a disorder bandwagon, overly eager to categorise themselves as struggling. Too often the media, the government and universities brush the issue under the carpet, while clearly harking back to days they imagine students to have been made of sterner stuff. Too often the story boils down to an image of privileged, molly-coddled, touchy kids, in need of a bit more stiff upper lip.
This attitude is ignorant, and immensely harmful. It belies the fact that student life has changed utterly in the last decade. There are aspects of the current student experience that previous generations were blissfully immune to. Yes, the cheap booze, hangover regrets and library panics remain constant, but the backdrop has shifted. Entry requirements have jumped; tuition fees have been first introduced, then trebled; unpaid internships and zero hours contracts have become the norm for graduates; low pay is expected, as 72% of 18-21 year olds earn less than the living wage; property ownership is out of the question and rent is ridiculously high. Today’s young people face a compound of academic pressure, financial difficulty and employment uncertainty as the norm. With the current Tory bark of ‘hard work’ being enough to succeed, it is impossible to escape the idea that pushing yourself to the limit is the only way to escape a debt time-bomb, and anything less is a failure. Students are internalising social pressures, and damaging themselves in the process. When the number of student suicides doubles in women and rises by over a third in men in just four years, this is not an issue of ‘over-sensitivity’.
Of course, it is overly simplistic to say that obvious pressures and stresses of contemporary student life are wholly to blame for the dramatic rise in mental health difficulties at university. But understanding this background burden should help to make it clear why it is so imperative that universities do not simply continue as normal when it comes to mental health care. Times have changed. And if stress and anxiety are the starting point, then confusing systems, long waiting lists for counselling and customer-service style tick-box forms can be enough to tip a vulnerable student into a dangerous state of isolation. All too often the burden of care falls on individual, who is left to seek alternative counselling options and academic support themselves. When a student is suffering from depression or an eating disorder – when isolation, guilt and self-hatred actively prevent you from looking for help – it is easy to fall through the cracks. Universities are supposed to nurture minds, to expand them. This cannot happen with a distant, hands-off attitude to mental wellbeing.