For many teens across the UK, September summons a great transition: the move from post-16 education to university. It’s sold to teenagers as ushering in new freedoms and experiences; for those who move out of their family homes, this may be their first time living independently.
So why aren’t we clear enough about how that can fuck with you mentally? Fear, anxiety, impostor syndrome and pressure points for ill mental health often anchor to our feelings of excitement and expectation as we ready ourselves for the challenge. As charity Mind tells VICE, mental health support should be embedded in the infrastructure of universities to pre-empt this epidemic of freshers blues. “It is important that universities offer appropriate support to students to look after their health and wellbeing while they are there,” a spokesperson said. “Every student should know what support is available, and how to access it.”
That may be the ideal situation. But ‘the conversation’ around mental health over the past few years has highlighted that university can trigger or amplify long-term mental struggles. Terms like ‘depression’ and ‘impostor syndrome’ provide outlines for these feelings, but they must be coloured in with student voices documenting what it means to encounter these difficulties, and what strategies can help overcome them.
After all, even with increases in mental health awareness, recent polling has indicated that levels of mental distress and illness among students at UK universities is “alarmingly high”, with half of students reporting thoughts of self-harm. Servicing young people with awareness campaigns becomes meaningless without real insights into what you physically or mentally encounter when you reach university. So to that end, we heard from two students and one recent graduate about how starting university impacted their mental health.
Ebruba Abel-Unokan, 21
University of Oxford, English
“I started at Oxford in 2017, fairly aware of my mental health issues but sans diagnosis. So when I first arrived, I signed up to the university counselling service and was put on the waiting list for a short course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). I struggled with depression and anxiety in sixth form to the point where it affected my A-Levels, and I’d had to go on a gap year so I could retake some exams.
It was adjusting to the loneliness of the environment that fucked with my head the most. I’d gone from constantly being around family at home and friends at school to an isolating social environment and a pretty antisocial degree. I study English, and they don’t do seminars at my uni, so it wasn’t really conducive to making friends on my course.”
“When I thought I was beginning to get a hold on my mental health, my mum died in December 2018, at the end of the first term of my second year. I sank back into another depressive episode. I was also the president of my college’s student union at the time, so I was under an obscene amount of pressure – I started finding grey hairs and developed rashes on my arms and chest from the stress of it all. I went back to therapy to avoid suspending or dropping out, but I struggled to maintain my relationships with a lot of people more than I ever did with the work. When I lost my mum, it felt like a lot of people who I’d told either didn’t know how to or want to be around someone who was grieving and depressed all the time and so I began to feel even more isolated than I already had been. I got more support from my tutors than from a quite a few of the people I’d called my friends.”
Nathania Williams, 20
University of Cambridge, History (and former Welfare Officer of the African and Caribbean Society)
“I think I went out for about 17 nights in a row when freshers week started, and I remember getting ill. I continued going out. At the time it was all banter, but I was not physically OK – and that had a mental strain. I also felt like I was being two different people – I’d go back to my room and deal with all the mental stress, whether it was academic or missing home, and then I’d go out and be this social person who loves to party. And I think going to university can really enable that, it’s easier to just remove yourself and withdraw into your own space. You can go into your room and not have to answer to anyone, but also go back out when there’s a motive and make out that you’re okay.”
“Going to uni was the first time that I actively tried to seek help for my mental health, but that’s where I reached a standstill because I realised that the mental health services in this country are fucked. I remember going to the doctors and basically being told, ‘it’s a sticky one, there’s not really much we can do for you’ – the doctor typed some things into google, flung me a website, and sent me on my way. And I just thought, I could’ve done this at home, I’ve been waiting ages. And that’s when I realised that this was something I was going to have to do on my own.”
University of Warwick graduate, Sociology
“Having gone from Northampton, a very working class area, to Warwick, a very middle class university, I struggled. My first year halls of residence was filled with a lot of people with rich parents, which was quite isolating for me. I had to work all weekend, every weekend, to get through my first year of university, to cover my rent, my food, my leisure, and that experience wasn’t being shared by my housemates at the time, which made me feel like I didn’t belong. That being said, working on weekends ended up being a positive because it allowed me to take care of my mental health by escaping campus. Working meant leaving an environment I found quite suffocating. So for first year students I always say, use your weekends to explore areas off campus, change your environment, because you attach a negative energy to your environment if you’re constantly there, especially if you don’t get to travel home very often.”
“When I started first year, I learnt about ‘referencing’ which I’d never done before. So in first term, I was done for plagiarism because I failed to reference correctly. I had to sit in front of a panel and justify why I’d been done for plagiarism, and this prolonged for a period of around a month and a half, with very little communication from the department. For me that was the point of uni where I felt at my lowest, because I thought ‘I’m not cut out for this.’ I really struggled in this period, I felt like everyone was going to judge me, especially because everyone at Warwick was really intelligent, and so many people had attended private schools. I went home for about four days because I was really not coping with the whole academic side of uni, but I did return with a new mindset determined to nail it, and three years later I graduated with a First.”
University is a major transition in anyone's life. Mental health issues and/or mental illness can make this unstable time even more complicated. Elsewhere on the site, we're featuring advice from experts to universities, breaking a story about the dearth of data on student drop-outs due to mental health issues and hearing the personal stories from parents left behind by a tragic spate of student suicides at the University of Bristol.
But if you or anyone you know is affected by the issues raised in this story, please use the following resources for help and support. In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans phone lines are open 24/7, at 116 123. In the US, if you're in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.