The Best Years of Your Life?
Thu 03 Mar 2022
Best Years of your Life?
Being a university student is often talked about as being “the best years of your life”. That first time living away from home. Choice around what classes to attend. Masses of different clubs. Meeting people from all over the world. Relationships. Life away from the scrutiny of parents. But with that expectation of freedom and life experiences also comes increased anxiety and isolation. The pandemic has changed the university experience with many students staying at home with family for at least a year of their course.
The 3rd March is University Mental Health day in the UK. Statistics around student mental health make depressing reading. UCAS reported a 450% increase over the last decade in declarations of students having pre existing mental health problems when applying for Universities, to 3.7% of applicants in 2020. But even with this frightening statistic there is an awareness that this is still a long way below the number of people actually struggling. In fact nearly 50 % of people admitted to not declaring their mental ill health on their application. Various reasons are cited for this but the top one seems to be lack of knowledge about where the information goes and the concern that it may affect the students application.
Horrifically, one student dies by suicide approximately every 4 days across the UK and the concern is that post Covid with an increase in mental health disorders in particular in this age group, that this number will rise. Our early 20s are the commonest age for disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to present, but still the commonest mental health disorders are depression and anxiety. This age group also has a high percentage of people suffering from eating disorders with hospital admissions for anorexia being highest between the ages of 15 and 24. It is also an age group which has a high proportion of people using substances, around 50% of students binge drink and this is associated with an increase in alcohol related injuries and death and also chronic liver conditions in people in their 20s.
The Higher Education Founding Council for England (HEFCE) commissioned a report in 2014 to look at institutional support for students with mental health problems which you can read in summary form on the Student Minds website ( www.studentminds.org.uk). In that report it showed that there was an increased need for services around mental health for students. That there were longer waiting times because of this and also the complexity of the support needed had increased. They discuss possible reasons for this, some of which could be viewed as positive such as the increased awareness of mental health disorders and better provision in schools. Some reasons however were negative. That student services were struggling because NHS general mental health services were struggling. That there was an increased use of legal highs and alcohol. That social media had increased issues around body image.
We are still waiting for the longer term impact of Covid on this population but 74% of students report that Covid 19 has had a negative impact on their mental health. Two thirds of students said they had felt isolated or lonely, and over 80% said that Covid had negatively impacted on their academic experience.
So how can we help?
When you are struggling as a young person away from home and your normal supports, what can you or a friend do to help?
The first piece of advice has to be to speak to someone. This may be a friend, your GP, your tutor, but make sure you talk to someone. Getting anxious and depressing thoughts out of your head space really does make them easier to deal with. It also means that there is someone who will be looking out for you.
The next tip is to check out the great resources that are there for students. https://www.studentminds.org.uk/ is a great place to look for helpful articles and research and access to support groups. They have a specific service for support around Covid called Student Space. They also have signposts towards your own University counseling services.
Make sure you have a local GP. One of the last things we often think about when we start University is the need for a GP but having someone in your new location is really important for being able to access services while you are away from home. If you have a pre-existing mental health problem (or physical for that matter) then it can be worth a visit to your old GP to pick up a patient summary and any letters relating to your care to take along when you register with your new GP.
Speak to your college tutor sooner rather than later if you are struggling. I am often asked to write letters of support for students because they have been unable to keep up with assignments and work load because of their mental health. But it is better for them to be aware before it gets to the point of failed exams. You are not alone and they will be sympathetic. Take a friend if you are anxious about this conversation.
Think of the things that we know help us to be healthy and well. These are the things that help our mental health to be healthy too. Try to eat well. This can be hard if you aren’t used to cooking for yourself but think about having 3 recipes that you can do easily - pasta dishes, soups, stews. Cook in batches and eat over several days. Or share cooking with your flatmates and think about increasing your intake of fruit and vegetables. Try and get good quality sleep. Get outside daily. Do some kind of physical activity 3 times a week. Avoid alcohol when you feel low or anxious. Think about learning just one breathwork technique to use if you feel anxious or stressed. This list could go on and on. Follow us on IG or FB if you want some regular advice on supporting your mental health.
It's hard to be a student in 2022. Please reach out for help if you need.
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