What’s happening to students’ mental health?

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[April Wilson | TV Director]

With the threat of a hike in tuition fees (again) and increased competition in the job market, it appears that the pressure on students is continuing to rise. What toll does this take on students’ mental health?

Student Stress

While starting university can be an exciting experience, it is also a very stressful time for students. Many students will have never lived away from home before or have never been apart from their family for that long. They will also have to establish a whole new set of friends while managing on what is usually a small budget (which usually prompts the need to get a job too.) For some, this can be overwhelming.

Stress, as outlined by the NHS website, can result in irritability and sleep problems. Too much stress can lead to physical and psychological problems such as:

  • Anxiety (feeling ranging from uneasiness to severe and paralysing panic)
  • Dry mouth
  • Churning stomach
  • Palpitations (pounding heart)
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Depression

The NHS stresses that if you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to seek help.  

Added pressures

Recently, the Conservative government announced plans to raise tuitions fees through a series of new government measures. These measures would mean that UK universities that score highly in teaching quality will be able to raise their annual tuition fees above the maximum £9000. Teaching quality will be measured by information provided by universities about the amount of time students spend in classes and lectures, as well as the jobs they are offered and average graduate earnings.

These measures have been proposed as a way to tackle what many people have seen as the issue of over-priced, low-value degrees, where students are not prepared adequately for employability after their degree.

However, student debt is already a topic of concern for a large number of students. This news is particularly worrying after other changes this year, such as the announcement that maintenance grants for lower income students in England and Wales (currently paid to students with family incomes below £42,000) are to be scrapped from September 2016. They will be replaced with loans that have to paid back once students earn over £21,000 a year.

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Alan Light, FlickrCC BY 4.0

Many have voiced fears that such measures could put people off applying to university because they don’t think they cannot afford it. For a lot of students, it is already a struggle to afford to go to university, so they have part-time jobs alongside their full-time education. In a survey carried out by the NUS Insights Team on behalf of Ensleigh, the student insurance company, they found that a record-breaking 77 per cent of students are now working to help fund their studies. Having a job during term-time is considered a normal aspect of student life by around 40 per cent of students, while 78 per cent consider having a job during university holidays commonplace, according to the survey.

Not all universities allow part-time jobs during term-time. Oxford University stresses that: “Term-time employment is not permitted except under exceptional circumstances and in consultation with your tutor and senior tutor. During vacations you will be required to complete academic work and this should take priority over other commitments.”

Cambridge University advocates something similar: “Full-time students are expected to devote their time to their studies and the University has strict rules regarding students working whilst they study. The University does not allow students to undertake paid work outside the University or a College while they are studying full-time. These rules apply to all graduate students of the University.”

More students are seeking help

Students seeking counselling at university is also on the rise. According to an article published by the BBC in 2015, the number of stressed out students seeking help is increasing. In the article, Ruth Caleb, chair of the Mental Health Wellbeing in Higher Education Group reports that counselling services are facing an annual increase of about 10 per cent.

A final-year student from the University at Hertfordshire (who would like to remain anonymous) said that university life has negatively affected their mental health, as well as their relationships:

“My boyfriend basically thought I was a dick for the last five months of my degree because I was snappy towards him. The stress was really playing on my mind 24/7, I woke up in the middle of the night in tears sometimes, had to go to the Wellbeing Office and went through a phase where I just wanted to give up completely.”

Justin C, Flickr, CC BY 4.0
Justin C, Flickr, CC BY 4.0

Another Herts final-year student, Holly Campbell, said:

“I’ve struggled greatly with my depression over my time at university to the point that I’ve considered taking my own life quite often. I’ve struggled mainly with the financial and social elements of university. Living with unpleasant strangers in particular. The workload and all that is fine.”

Campbell did also highlight that university has had some positive impact on her mental health:

“I think university has helped with my social anxiety in that I feel slightly more comfortable opening up to people after living in halls. The resources available are good based on my experience. The counselling centre is helpful and they’ve got a good selection of things.”

Help available

The Student Wellbeing Office at Herts offers many different kinds of professional counselling services for students. They can be found in Hutton Hub on the College Lane campus and can be contacted by telephone at +44 (0)1707 284453 or by email at studentwellbeing@herts.ac.uk.

There are also organisations outside university that are available for students seeking mental health, such as Student Minds, which is the UK’s student mental health charity.

Student Minds offer support through numerous confidential support programs, which are run by groups of trained student volunteers. However, Herts does not currently have a specific Student Minds support program set up at the University, but if you want to change that you can find out more about running a support group here.

The charity, Mind, also offers advice and support for people struggling with their mental health.

Mind can help provide information on a range of topics including:

  • Types of mental health problem
  • Where to get help
  • Medication and alternative treatments
  • Advocacy.

Mind can be contacted from 09:00 am to 06:00 pm, Monday-Friday (except for bank holidays) on 0300 123 3393 or by text on 86463 or by email at info@mind.org.uk
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Tip: Remember to take some time out and focus on strengthening your relationships, as they are often a key part of our mental health and wellbeing. One way you can do this is by making a #RelationshipsResolution such as making sure you have one date night a week with your partner or to make sure to ring your parents up more often.

If you want to share your stories about how your mental health has been affected by university life, please tweet us @TridentMediaUK or comment below.

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What’s happening to students’ mental health?