Depression At University: Mental Health Stigma Stops Students Seeking Help

Mental Health Stigma Stopping Depressed Students Seeking Help, Warn Experts
The stigma around mental health is stopping students from seeking help at university
The stigma around mental health is stopping students from seeking help at university

Stigma around mental health is stopping students who suffer with depression from seeking help, leaving many feeling isolated and alone, leading experts have warned.

Students may also be dissuaded from coming forward over fears of discrimination from their universities and future employers, according to one expert.

Mental health campaigner Ed Pinkney, who founded Mental Wealth UK, told the Huffington Post UK, the percentage of students disclosing their mental health problem is "remarkably low" and said some university leaders' approach to mental health is "ridiculous".

In addition, a report from mental health charity Time to Change, which campaigns to end mental health discrimination, found "many" young people were unwilling to seek help from formal services due to stigma, or fear of stigma, around depression. The number of young people suffering from mental health problems is currently unknown, although mental health charity MindFull recently suggested around one in five young people show symptoms of depression.

According to charities, the most recent comprehensive survey on young people's mental health was by the ONS in 2004, which revealed 10% of young people have mental health problems. Many experts warn today's figure is much higher, as many don't speak out about their suffering due to fear of being stigmatised, or simply not realising they are depressed.

In a survey by Time to Change, which questioned 1000 young people, 90% reported experiencing negative treatment from others because of their mental health problems, with more than four in 10 saying this happened as frequently as every day. The research found 70% experienced negative reactions from friends, 57% from parents, and 45% from boyfriends or girlfriends.

Sue Baker, Director of Time to Change, which is run by the charities Mind and Rethink mental Illness, told HuffPost UK students faced a "barrage" of stigma. "Going to university and moving away from home is a stressful time for all students.

"Learning how to look after their own mental health and wellbeing at this critical time in their life is vital, and a big part of this is being able to speak openly to others about how they are feeling in order to get support and understanding instead of a barrage of stigma which just makes matters worse.

"Previous research tells us that half of all lifetime mental disorders start by the mid-teens and three quarters by the mid 20s. Our research shows that mental health problems are more common among students than the official figures suggest.

"We are working with many organisations to tackle mental health stigma and help students feel more able to be open about their mental health - making this new chapter in students' lives as easy and enjoyable as possible."

The Time to Change report stated many young people felt isolated and lonely following the negative reactions, with 26% saying the stigma had made them want to "give up on life".

"Participants reported fear of being bullied or discriminated against stopped them telling others about their mental health problems, and this makes their problems worse," the report continued.

Ed Pinkney raised his concerns over large waiting lists for counselling services and "strained resources" available to university counselling staff.

"If students find there are large waiting lists for counselling services, it may affect their willingness to continue seeking support," Pinkney tells HuffPost UK. "If they know they have to wait several weeks it's not going to give them a huge amount of confidence. Poor services is an issue which needs to be prioritised.

"In a time when students are being hit by challenging job prospects and a heavy financial burden, the sensible thing is for support services to be strengthened. Young people need all the support they can get at the moment.

"The staff involved in support are incredibly dedicated and hardworking. They're some of the most compassionate and concerned people about welfare. I've been working with them for around five or six years and they're really inspiring people. But at the same time, their resources are strained."

A report released last year by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) found just 0.7%, or one in 150 students, disclosed mental illnesses to their higher education institutions in 2010-11. The head of policy at the ECU Gary Loke told students if they did not disclose they had a problem, they could not be helped.

But Pinkney criticised the approach, saying universities, charities and think tanks need to be instead asking why more students are not coming forward.

Pinkney adds: "We need to be asking: 'What are universities committing to provide to students who do disclose?'.

"If universities aren't making clear how they are going to ensure they do not discriminate against students who do disclose, then students may feel more wary about disclosing over concerns universities and graduate recruiters will discriminate."

"Some universities are not appreciating the extent to which academic matters and support issues are interlinked," Pinkney continues. "One vice-chancellor said students need a very good curriculum and a teaching experience; they don't go to university for support. That's just ridiculous.

"To see support and teaching as completely separate issues is to completely overlook the extent to which mental health issues and issues around wellbeing such as stress are being affected by teaching matters - deadlines, exams, coursework and so on.

"Some universities are not appreciating the connection between the two as much as they might. There's a lingering, outdated, archaic view that support is irrelevant and something that shouldn't be considered in the context of teaching matters. It's nonsense."

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A study conducted in 2012 by the NUS' Northern Ireland branch found more than a quarter of students have or had previously had a mental illness. Tellingly, 22% said they had no experience of mental illness, either personally or through a friend or relative.

At the time of the report's release, Anne Doherty, deputy chief executive of one of the project's partner organisations, MindWise, said: "These are very interesting findings which clearly show how many people have or have had a mental illness, yet they also starkly illustrate a potential lack of understanding of this very important issue, with around one in five people surveyed saying they had no experience of mental illness personally or through someone close to them."

Useful websites and helplines:

Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393

Students Against Depression, a website by students, for students.

HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41

Mental Wealth UK To join the community or launch a student group contact the charity on


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