University life is often exaggerated and overhyped. It is said to be ‘the best time of your life’, a time when you’ll make friends for life, meet your soul mate and have experiences you’ll never forget. But in a growing number of cases, that is far from reality.
In May 2013, the NUS undertook research aiming to expose the number of the students who consider themselves to have a mental health problem. The survey discovered 20% of UK students thought they had a range of mental health issues. Furthermore, the research found the number of students seeking counselling on campus had risen by 33% since 2008.
Yet the stigma surrounding depression and bipolar disorder, in particular, has not changed, and nor has the universities’ approach to it. With constant budget cuts surrounding counselling services and other student support systems, six students from universities around the country give their testimonies about the support they have received from their universities.
The students cite issues such as a lack of education and dialogue about mental health as contributing to the stigma surrounding it in their testimonies, and reveal the fear of being judged or labelled as a cause of their mental health.
First Year University of Exeter student–
“There is definitely a stigma associated with depression. People think that its something you choose to have, and I’ve very often been told to “snap out of it” or that if I “think positive” everything will be fine. “Your life can’t be that bad, you have friends and a stable family home.” Translation = you’re an ungrateful brat. People assume it’s my attitude that has a problem, when in fact my brain has a chemical imbalance. I don’t feel comfortable at all discussing it with my fellow students, as I know that they would see the support my tutors give me as unfair, because I don’t look ill.
"There hasn’t been enough education about mental illnesses and how debilitating they are. They don’t see how bad I get when I have major depressive episodes, where I sleep up to 20 hours a day because I am so drained of energy, where I am unable to carry out simple tasks such as showering for days on end, because every minute that I spend awake is a minute wishing I wasn’t alive. My tutors on the other hand have been incredibly supportive, but I think this is down to the fact that I usually give them plenty of notice. I don’t use my depression as an excuse to extend an essay deadline the day before it’s due.”
Second Year King’s College London student-
“Depression is a horrible illness in that it is debilitating, long-term and it touches all spheres of your life but perhaps what is worse is that being a mental illness it is chronically misunderstood. Every day you engage in a battle with yourself just to get up and carry on, so the worst possible scenario is that those around you tell you to “man up, it’s just a phase” or that as an individual you are just more sensitive than others. You start to believe that you are just being dramatic.
"But depression is an illness. Science still does not fully understand it. The public definitely do not understand it. I like to compare it to diabetes – it is a lifelong condition that you have to constantly manage, sometimes there will be crises, sometimes you will need medical help, but it does not define you or your life. I am fairly open about having depression because, surprise surprise, shame and fear are counterproductive to a healthy mental state. This doesn’t mean I shout it about, or wear it like a badge and use it as an excuse, but if someone asks me I don’t mind talking. The more we talk, the more we will understand and be comfortable. I do think mental health scares people; it scared me until I learned more about it.
"At university it is hard because you are so far from your support structure of family and friends. I have been very fortunate that London has great psychological support so help is always there should I need it. (I have a sort of triumvirate of mental healthcare from my GP to psychologist and psychological wellbeing practitioners who help me monitor my mental health). Through this I have learnt to be frank with people, to ask for the support of my friends and family when I’m struggling and actually, the more I talk to them, the easier it is for them to support me and also deal with their own issues. I had a lot of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and its skills have not only helped me cope with my depression, but also advise and support my own friends in their everyday life. The more we can get rid of the stigma, because it definitely exists, the more people suffering we can help. Look how far we’ve come with gay rights, this is possible.”
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Third Year University of Sussex student –
“I haven't experienced too much of a stigma for the reason that I don't tell anyone outside of my close group of friends and family that I have bipolar type II disorder. After feeling lost in first year, followed by a summer of extreme highs, I settled into a severe depression during my second year. I isolated myself from my housemates and friends, relying on the support of family at home and a boyfriend who lived in London to get by day to day. After my condition got worse (I started to hear voices) I enrolled in the 6 weeks of counselling services available at the university. Though this didn't help, it made it clear to me I needed to take further steps, and was referred to Brighton Mental Health Hospital on an outpatient basis by my GP at Sussex.
"It took me around 8 months to tell my friends what I had been going through, less from a feeling of taboo and more of a sense of paranoia; worrying that they would think I was making it up, being dramatic, or seeking attention. These are the most common derogatory labels that can be given to someone- especially a woman in her teens or early 20's- with the clear message that it's all in your head. I feel constant pressure not to use my illness as an excuse, and in this way refuse to accept it as a part of me. For that reason I never told any tutors or classmates, instead using my own experience to spark interest in researching mental health on the whole that I now plan to use for my dissertation. So there's one positive thing to come out of it!”
Third Year University of Leicester student –
“UOL has been really supportive in dealing with my depression. During second semester of first year I found myself struggling with my depression and as a result missed a fair amount of work. Having been to see the doctor I went and spoke with my personal tutor who could not have been more helpful. She listened patiently to my explanation and then immediately suggested ways that she could help if necessary, which included writing to my tutors simply explaining I had mitigating circumstances so that I didn’t have to tell them personally what was wrong. She also said that having explained it to her it was not necessary for my depression to go on my record, she would know what the mitigating circumstance was and it would be between her and me.
"It was such a relief to have the pressure taken off me and to know that the university not only believed me but also wanted to help. They also showed a comprehensive understanding of the stigma that still exists amongst many employers today and were willing to assist me in keeping my depression a personal matter, as it should be.”
Second Year King’s College London student -
“Although my department has tried to support me there's really little that they can actually do. I have never feared stigmatisation, just extreme anxiety and depression, which is exacerbated by requesting extended deadlines and makes me more anxious and depressed.”
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
Student Minds To join the community or launch a student group contact the charity on firstname.lastname@example.org