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Essays, Exams, and Emotions: Mental Health at University

For many people, starting university is an exciting, enriching and positive opportunity; offering a chance to leave home, be independent, find new friends or even study a completely different subject. However, for many students, university is a place where mental health suffers as a result of the student lifestyle. Recent years have seen a rapid increase in demand for university mental health services. Latest statistics published by the charity Time to Change say that one in four people per year will start to suffer from a mental health problem. This is arguably amplified in university, where young adults are released, often for the first time, to fend for and look after themselves. Although this newfound independence can be liberating, the responsibility of cooking, cleaning, making new friends, living with unfamiliar people, balancing work and social lives and living away from family can all lead to stress and pressures that a person has perhaps never had to deal with before arriving at university. With recent figures showing that suicide among the student community is at a record high, it is evident that this mental health crisis needs to be addressed now.

Unfortunately with this rapid increase in demand for mental health services, University of York providers of help for mental and psychological problems, such as the Open Door Team, are unable to meet the high demand of students in need of help. Devastatingly it has resulted in many students being left on waiting lists for months in their time of crisis. NHS Services such as IAPT (Increasing Access to Psychological Therapy) are too seeing an increase in need for the services. For treatments in high demand, such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and counselling, the waiting lists have even extended to several months due to a lack of funding. This results in a failure to provide what is so desperately needed. It is clear that the approach to mental health needs to change as a matter of urgency.

Although the University of York has invested more money into mental health services for upcoming years, it is imperative that something happens in the meantime to assist and help battle this crisis. It is important to know that there are services in place to provide help if you ever should need them during your time at university. More so as mental illness often leads to feelings of isolation, and having a lack of help only adds to the distress caused by it. We, as students, have a responsibility to begin to tackle the mental health crisis that is happening right now all around us.

It is very likely that within university everyone will know at least one person struggling with mental health issues, and often the most difficult thing to cope with is the stigma that surrounds it. Statistics provided by the Mental Health Foundation show that an astonishing nine out of ten people who experience mental illness will face stigma and discrimination because of it, often continuing even after recovery. The only way to end this stigma is to be open and talk about it. This will dispel the rumours and help to provide more understanding about what our classmates are going through, and so reduce the demand on out mental health services. Whether this means an open conversation with someone you know is struggling, or getting involved in volunteering for mental health organisations in and out of university, we need to be active in our approach to ending misinformation and stigma.

Every person, whether they are familiar with mental health issues and how to help or not, can offer an understanding ear to hear what a person is saying without judging them. Everyone within the student community has a responsibility and the ability to aid in the fight against the crisis that is claiming more lives each year. I asked a few University of York students how they would approach the matter of helping someone who is struggling with mental health and these are but a few of the many responses that were gladly reassuring. One person suggested that ‘Sometimes people don’t want to talk, and that’s OK, just be there for them if they need it’ while another said ‘People shouldn’t feel pressured to talk, they can talk about it when they’re good and ready and comfortable but you should always be ready to listen’.  A third said that ‘The most important thing is to listen to what they need. Since it’s so different for everyone it’s unlikely that there will be a one size fits all solution’. A further piece of advice was ‘Just because they might have “better” reasons for feeling down, it doesn’t invalidate everyone else’s feelings’. These responses only go to show that it doesn’t take formal training to help someone with mental illness. If everyone could offer to listen, to know that there are people there to offer support, we might start to recover from this mental health crisis.

Although a friendly shoulder, a chat and a cup of tea is no substitute for medical attention when it is needed, knowing that there are people there when you need them; to listen, to support, to advise and to care, can be a real foundation in maintaining stable mental health. We can all be the support to our university’s strained mental health services. We can all act as that person to call in a time of need. We can all offer help in some way towards the improvement of handling mental health issues so that no one person will be forced to fight this battle alone.