Social media is a strange entity. It is signposted as the cause for many mental health issues in young people, due to the domination over our communication channels it has; but then at the same time, it’s used to raise awareness about valuable issues. Today is one such conundrum. Twitter has announced to the world that it’s #UniMentalHealthDay and the entirety of the Twitter-verse has jumped at the chance to post, tweet and share their thoughts on the mental health crisis facing universities across the UK. Social media has become a forum to discuss negative mental health triggers, symptoms, causes and solutions – mildly ironic given just how many young people credit Instagram with body image issues, Facebook with loneliness and Twitter with bullying…
Putting that juxtaposition of social media values aside, #UniMentalHealthDay gives us an occasion to reflect on the mental health situation facing young people, specifically those at university.
University is a great time for so many people. You meet friends who you might end up keeping for the rest of your life. You’re pursuing a qualification in something you’re actually interested in. Perhaps you’ve even moved away from home and you’re getting your first taste of independent life. There are so many reasons why university can be a really positive time; however, looking at all these factors in another light can also highlight how easy it can be to develop mental health issues. There’s an immense of pressure on students to build a large circle of friends, to excel academically while also being a “big name on campus”; and all this is happening in a foreign environment with (at times) a weak support system in place. And let’s not forget the vast financial strain young people are put under with incredibly high tuition fees, restricted availability of financial aid and the ever-looming threat of debt straight after graduation. It’s ignorant to think that will have no impact on the levels of depression, anxiety and stress across the student community.
Reports indicate that 1 in 4 students at university experience a mental health problem and higher education institutions across the country are reporting a 94% increase in demand for counselling services. This data highlights the real crisis we’re facing in regard to caring for the mental health of our students.
Are you a 'BNOC'?
While it’s true that the stereotypical “childhood innocence” is ending much earlier than in previous generations, due to the exposure children and teenagers have to adult themes such as violence, substance abuse, sex and crime from films, tv shows, advertising material and video games. We’re now in a world where children become young adults much earlier and aspire to grow up much sooner. Teenagers are conditioned to want to look, act or be treated like social media “celebrities”; which affects the way they view the world at a crucial point in their psychological development. With all this happening as they grow up, by the time they reach university, students are so susceptible to the pressures of uni life. Fitting in and being recognised as a popular person within a community is seen as essential; so, when it’s harder than expected, the mental health stability of students suffers.
First, 2.1, 2.2, Third...
University students also face a real amount of pressure academically, as so much emphasis is placed on getting the top grades in “sensible” degrees which will help you secure a job afterwards in an employment market that is stacked against you. There are now so many more applicants for every role, so young people are pushed into feeling that anything other than a First is a let-down and will severely damage their future. This jeopardises their ability to grow as an individual outside of an educational spectrum and develop qualities which will serve them much better in the job market (confidence, teamwork, compassion, etc.).
What can we do?
It’s clear that something needs to be done to shake up the way students view the university experience. Student suicide rates have gone up 79% between 2009 and 2015, so the time to act is now. Firstly, we need to get the message across that university isn’t necessarily for everyone, and that is okay! We are all programmed differently, and hence we will succeed in different environments. For some, that means a different route than the standard university process. Perhaps it’s straight into work. Or maybe you discover an apprenticeship that you’re passionate about. At times, sometimes what needs to be reinforced as well is the fact that most of the time, a student will be more likely to succeed if they’re studying something they love, instead of what they believe they ‘should’ study. If you love a particular subject, you’ll work harder for the coursework, engross yourself in the wider reading and actively engage with the teaching. You’ll also be happier. As a result, the academic pressure (while not gone completely) will be more of an encouragement to thrive, than a threat of failure.
Another factor to consider is the support systems in place at universities. Students from poorer backgrounds need a better level of financial aid, and a reduction in the fear that they will be bankrupt the minute they leave university and have to start repaying loans. The standard university culture of drinking, partying and intense socialising is also in need of reform. We all have different interests, so let’s ensure they all get the necessary attention. Societies that foster more bespoke passions, artistic endeavours or highlight cultural differences need the same amount of funding and publicity on campus as the major sports teams (and typically the wildest partiers) get. Drug and substance misuse is rife among students, and peer pressure plays a large role in that; therefore, if we show new students that there are healthier ways to manage the new life changes they’re experiencing than just following the “crowd”, we might just be able to make them feel less alone.
Most importantly, mental health services. They need to be more accessible, more widely available and more openly discussed with students. At times it can feel like seeking help is embarrassing or admitting failure, so let’s make sure that all young students arriving on day 1 learn that it 100% is not. Not having the ‘perfect’ university experience is completely normal. No-one expects you to go through it stress free; but what we can do is make sure that we’re all here to help manage the stress and give you the appropriate channels to release it and process all negative emotions you’re having.
While you're here...
One Stop Social has a whole range of helpful mental health resources to further your practice and to ensure the vulnerable people you work with get the best support . Here are just a few recommended tools and guides we find useful.