Large numbers of students have been reported to be suffering from stress and anxiety and the numbers are rising. Are universities providing enough help?
The Higher Education Funding Council for England recently ran a survey. They found that mental health problems in universities had more than doubled between 2008 and 2012/13. These problems included anxiety, depression and low mood and the survey revealed that these are the consequences of the cost of studying, a fear of failure and an uncertain future. Moreover, marital breakdown at the point when a child leaves for further education, possibly resulting in the loss of the family home, is additionally destabilising for these young adults.
The report quotes a student who suffered anorexia and depression while at a top university. It states that these symptoms came from experiencing a new set of expectations and the need to perform with excellence both academically and socially. Although there is provision for counselling services for students, there are not always enough of them and they are not always readily available. From this report there is ample evidence that adequate student counselling needs stepping up and improving.
My own experiences echo this report
For the last few years I have studied English and American and Comparative Literature for a joint honours degree at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK. This four-year course has developed both a knowledge of literature and of myself. I am not offering an objective narrative, but an in-depth account of the fears and experiences that defined my years at university.
I spent the third out of the four years of university in the Czech Republic in an Erasmus programme. Like most students going on their year abroad, I felt both happy and terrified to leave home. I’d only just tried being a semi-competent adult at my home university and I could barely fathom what it would be like to attempt to shop for groceries or figure out public transport drunk and in another language. It all seemed a bit beyond my capabilities. Yet, no matter how scared I felt, I knew this was an incredibly important opportunity. It was a chance to grow and leave behind my own conceptions of myself and how others perceived me – to go out and be who I wanted to be. I looked forward to experiencing the peculiarities of a new culture. Prague exceeded my expectations – everyday was interesting. I had more space, my own place and, although I wasn’t happy all the time, I was always interested.
This was a distinct contrast to my first two years at the UK university. While I settled in fairly well in the first year, in retrospect I think I made decisions too fast. I thought if I just made the important choices, such as where and who to live with for the next year or where to do my year abroad, if I just went through the motions as I knew adults did, it would be okay. It would mean that I was doing ‘it’, adulthood or university, correctly.
At first, it was like a ‘building up’. I was living in catered halls that felt like an extension of home. When I became conscious of my anxieties in that year, I tended to ignore them and ran a lot. They were anxieties about exam success and socialising. Running is my safety net. As tensions increased, so did the length of time I ran, so for example around the exam period, I would run up to two hours every day, either in one long run or split up into two sessions of one hour each, depending on how I felt. I used running for escapism, to daydream my academic and social problems away. I used it not to resolve a problem, but to try to escape from it. I still find it a useful way to calm down.
One of the big learning curves socially was that I had to learn to be discriminating about friends, or at least to come to terms with the fact that not everyone was going to like me. Retrospectively, I know that this simply had to do with my immaturity, but at the time I felt that I was failing at socialising. Even though I’d made multitudes of wonderful friends, the fact that I didn’t get along with the people I lived with in the first or second year made me feel as if I had failed. If my social and academic life wasn’t perfect, then I was clearly doing something wrong.
At the end of my second year, my panic attacks (which had begun the first year of my GCSEs) had become serious. They were happening many times a day for the slightest thing. Talking to the grocer or bumping into a classmate were no longer simple parts of my day but events to obsess over – to decode how I’d done, if I’d made a fool of myself. Each panic attack would last between three and seven minutes and would begin with a simple awareness of my heart. Each heartbeat would get stronger and faster until it felt as if my heart would burst out of my ribcage. To combat these attacks I’d take my pulse and count or I’d simply sit and wait.
I was having problems with my housemates as well. I had become involved in the drama society, which meant I started socializing with other people and this, along with my part-time job as a bartender, meant I was living different hours to them. The job and rehearsals brought me home at unsocial hours, sometimes 10:30pm or 2am, and I sometimes woke one of my housemates while trying to cook. In consequence, I stopped eating dinner and my anxiety increased. After I had had a couple of arguments with friends, I felt everything I had to go through to be a student, or even to be a functioning adult, was not working. I started seeing the student counsellor.
I saw the university counsellor for five weeks, one session a week. The sessions were informal, simply the counsellor and me facing each other in a threadbare room as the spring sky darkened. This counsellor, a woman, was interested to hear that I am a twin (non-identical) and prompted me with questions about my place within my family. Although these sessions were helpful, I felt that I was venting to an empty space about my issues. While she asked questions that prompted comment, no solutions were offered. In fact, often these sessions depressed me. I felt that the counsellor’s role, as a listener, should have been fulfilled by one of my friends. The fact I had to go and seek help, ultimately paying another non-university counsellor for sessions, simply proved that my attempts at meaningful friendship had failed.
At the start of the fourth year, I returned from the year in Prague. I knew I needed help again so I found another counsellor to support me. The majority of my friends had graduated and I knew I would need someone to talk to if I didn’t want to relive my second year. This time the counsellor was male. He wasn’t as sympathetic as the woman counsellor and used a different method. He helped me deconstruct the problem and suggested I used an emotion diary – a place where I could regularly deconstruct my feelings, to acknowledge them instead of using my typical escapes. I saw him once a week for four months. I developed skills that helped me deconstruct my emotions rather than allowing them to fester.
He listened to plans after graduation and the peculiarities of my relationships with my family, housemates and friends. He wasn’t kind or rude, he was rather like an acoustic chamber echoing back my ideas and fears to me in a new language that had me hear them. He continually pointed out my need for escapism, deliberating on fear of financial failure and trouble with articulating my emotions.
Talking things over with my closest friends, I discovered that I wasn’t alone. Most of students in the English department appeared to me to need counselling, were on anti-depressants or were seeing a counsellor. I can’t think of one person that I knew who didn’t see a counsellor at some point. Off the top of my head, I can think of ten of the students in that department who were seeking help. There was no gender divide – men as well as women were involved in counselling. Additionally, it seemed all of the creative writing department were seeking help.
One of my main causes of anxiety for the last four years has been social interaction, yet previously I could escape from these fears through studying and reading. I have always read voraciously and I have used books as well as exercise as places to switch off. However throughout my university degree I felt a pressure to read rather than seeing it as a place to relax as before. Reading had become an academic necessity rather than an activity for pleasure or relief from my difficulties. While this was expected, because of the degree I was studying, the evolution of my favourite hobby into an activity that actively caused stress was difficult. With the onset of university, this stress was exacerbated by the difficulty of a new set of social interactions.
What were the causes?
The major pressure was the importance of being one of the best. Another issue was of the university’s history and ethos. Kent, while being a good university, is not a red-brick. Everyone in my year had certain chips on their shoulders about this. Most had arrived as the best students in their schools; some had missed getting into the red-brick universities by a few marks and others had just scraped through the exams and into this university. They had all arrived in Kent disappointed and already feeling like they had failed. I felt the same.
My greatest anxiety has always been failure. I have been diagnosed with dyslexia and I have always been afraid that I wouldn’t be a successful person in a social, emotional and financial sense. If I didn’t do well at school, I would have no future and if I didn’t do well immediately, I would be stuck doing something I didn’t like for the rest of my life. I have always been told that Art Major students fail at getting or doing jobs they love; only the best, those who work tirelessly, get jobs in the fields they want to. I knew that in order to get the internships that would lead to jobs in the field I wanted, I would have to be outstanding. Yet, due to my dyslexia and belief that I have continually failed in academic areas, I also knew there was nothing on my CV that appeared outstanding.
This continual doubt has lead to a certain competitiveness in my character and every English student I know is equally competitive. The overwhelming fear of failure was prevalent at university. Some of the other students were worried about what their parents would think of them if they didn’t get good grades in the final exams. For instance, one of my classmates who worked hard and always achieved high grades for all of his course assignments just missed a first class pass which we all knew he deserved, getting a high 2:1 (a good second class pass). As a result, his mother phoned up the university and questioned the mark. I was not so much worried about what my parents would say about me failing, more that I would be a continual financial burden on them.
I got a First. Counselling has been an invaluable resource during my university years and one that I will undoubtedly take up again. It’s helped me to ask questions about how I want to live and about the expectations I place upon others and myself.
Leah Hicks (not her real name) now works in a well-known bookstore.
1 BBC Report – Rising numbers of stressed students seek help. Sean Coughlan, Education correspondent [Accessed on 26 October 2015]
2 Student Minds. A summary of the Report to HEFCE. Understanding the provision for students with mental health problems.[Accessed on 18 October 2015]