We talked to a small group of students about the impact of university and the pandemic on their mental health.
CONTENT WARNING: self-harm, suicide and mental illness.
Statistics for the national mental health of students are not good. The most extensive study ever conducted on the topic found that around one in three university students have experienced a mental health issue for which they felt the need for professional help. The most common problems are, unsurprisingly, depression and anxiety. During my time at Cambridge University, I have seen and experienced these issues first hand.
It makes me wonder why the unique experiences of a multitude of different students are being amalgamated into several wide-sweeping statistics. The intrinsic value of statistics is that they represent the big picture, but with something as personal as mental health, is there not more value in giving individual’s a platform to share their experiences? The challenges of COVID have complicated the situation even further, affecting student mental health in many cases more severely than anything else. With this in mind, I spoke to a selection of students from universities around the UK via Instagram, who have shared their personal stories of mental health at university. I was overwhelmed by how many people were keen to talk and how candidly they described their experiences. These stories are a selection that I thought best illustrated the different journeys that students have undertaken during their years at university. Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of interviewees.
Sara, 19, studies Law at Manchester University: “I knew I was going to study a competitive and difficult course, but I didn’t realise what a toll it would take on my mental health. I regularly feel sick and anxious, it affects all aspects of my life and I’ve lost friends as a result of being too anxious to socialise."
Ben, 21, studies Physics at UCL: “I was doing fine until COVID really. I’ve gone from being really social and going out in London all the time, which is what I think kept me sane, to being locked in my room 24/7. I’m in touch with my friends but I don’t think any of them realise how bad it’s been getting. I’ve thought about hurting myself and even maybe suicide. I’ve looked into getting counselling, but the waiting list is several months so going to the GP will have to do for now.”
Olivia, 21, studies History at Cambridge University: “I’m just tired all the time now. I’ve lost motivation with my degree, my tutor and DoS [Director of Studies] just ignore my emails and I feel isolated and lonely. I spend my days in bed napping and watching Netflix. If I continue like this, I’ll probably fail but to be honest I don’t really care anymore. This isn’t what I wanted or expected my university experience to be like.”
Sophie, 24, is studying for a masters degree at Oxford University: “I think my passion for my subject, and my supportive partner are carrying me through lockdown. Before COVID, I had the best time at Oxford. I met my partner in freshers. We share everything, from our interests to our friendship group. We’re now both doing masters and we live outside of the city centre. Lockdown is difficult but I recognise that I’m much more fortunate than most students – I have my own space, my independence, a dog and I’m studying something I genuinely love.”
Mo, 20, studies Chemistry at Birmingham University: “I’m a second year and I’m not having a good time at uni. I made a few friends in first year but COVID cut that short and I feel like I didn’t really get the chance to become close friends with them. Second year’s been a mess. I’m vulnerable so I haven’t really been out since March and I’ve had to work from home all year. It just feels pointless and my thoughts are almost always negative these days.
Alex, 20, studies Medicine at Cambridge University: “I don’t think about my mental health very much. I’ve seen how others have struggled with their time at uni but I’ve been lucky enough not to have to think about it really. I think I can credit a lot of my stability to my friends, who have always been there for me and I know would be if I needed them.”
Daisy, 21, studies Classics at Cambridge University: “There’s so much wrong with my mental health. I’m really ill and I recognise that. I suffer from manic depression and a host of other illnesses – sometimes I’m okay but I can lose control very easily. I’ve attempted suicide twice during my three years at uni. It was hard in college but it’s even harder at home. It feels like I’m in a pressure cooker that’s about to explode. I’m in therapy and I take several different medications every day. I hope it will all get better after uni.”
Katie, 20, studies Economics at LSE: “I pride myself on being a mentally strong person. I’ve got friends that are really struggling though - I can’t imagine how hard that is. I get stressed about work for sure, but I can’t say I’ve ever experienced depression or anxiety. I do feel really desensitised living at home, but I still make sure I exercise and work in a productive way.
One of the most important messages to take away from this is the importance of seeking professional support if you are struggling with your mental health. You can get help 24/7 by phone from the Samaritans on 116123 or by text from Mind on 86463.