01/09/2014 07:21 BST | Updated 02/09/2014 05:59 BST

Students Suffering From Mental Illness Face Crippling Stigma

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Despite students’ vulnerability to mental health problems, at universities and colleges, mental illness remains a taboo.

For many students, the stigma attached to mental illness can be as destructive and frightening as the disorder itself, and can often prevent them from getting help.

It seems paradoxical that environments renowned for their open-mindedness and educational prowess demonstrate such a pronounced lack of understanding of mental illness. However, it’s a suggestion supported by research.

A survey conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2013, found that 20% of 1,200 students reported suffering from a mental health problem, a statistic which only includes those willing to be open about their mental illness. However, most concerning was that over a quarter had not told anyone about their problems, with only 1 in 10 seeking help from their university.

Colum McGuire, NUS’ Vice President (for) Welfare, said: "It is heart-breaking when we hear of students silently suffering with mental health issues. NUS wants to make concerns about mental health a higher priority and to improve standards of support. For some, the stress and new surroundings that comes with leaving to go to university can trigger mental health issues and students face a particular set of challenges that can leave some struggling to cope.

"We are really concerned about cuts to support services, particularly around poor referrals to outside services, and whether those local services have the adequate resources to help students."

He adds: "we are working with mental health agencies to examine the standard of mental health care in UK universities and colleges."

Whilst improving students’ access to mental health care is essential, the considerable stigma attached to mental illness often leaves students unwilling to seek help in the first place.

Edinburgh University student Megan speaks to HuffPost about her own experience of stigma: "As a student who struggled with bouts of crippling depression and anxiety, university has been a time where I have come to accept my conditions and seek treatment and assistance, although this was not an easy decision as it meant exposing myself to stigma in university and potentially beyond in the job market."

Megan is constantly aware of the presence of stigma at university, and feels the need to conceal her illness as a result. "I am met by the every-present feeling that I must not allow tutors, supervisors of lecturers to know for fear of being judged inadequate, unsuitable or unable to cope with the pressures of academic life. When trying to reach out to the university on one occasion, I was met by silence.

"I find myself nervously weighing up whether to pass off counseling as an undisclosed ‘appointments’, explaining absences from lectures as ‘sleeping in’ and absence at the pub as a ‘headache’, or whether to be open and honest. This is a decision that should never have to cross my mind."

She adds: "A lack of discussion of mental health within the student population often means words are carelessly used, through lack of understanding, that are implicit in stigma. When everyone is ‘depressed’ about studying or exams, nobody is depressed in the clinical sense. It can be hard to speak out about experiences and difficulties as you fear you will not be taken seriously; told to ‘get on with it’, ‘pick yourself up’, or ‘put things in perspective’."

Stigma has prevented Megan from being open about her illness. "Until now, I have been honest about my conditions with only a few people, due to being met with stigmatised treatment previously."

At Roehampton University, Miranda Bunting too struggled with the stigma she encountered as a result of her mental health problems: "I went to university the year after I had been in hospital having had a break down and was very worried about how I would cope and what people would think and say when I told them about what I had been up to the year before. Spending several weeks in hospital with mental illness was not how any of my friends had spent their gap years, so I felt different from them and it was hard because arriving at university meant meeting knew people who didn’t know anything about me."

Miranda made the brave decision to be open about her mental health decisions, which she admits was a "risk". "Some people reacted very well but others would change the subject, walk away or want to talk about themselves."

Miranda adds: "Stigma is still prevalent, but so is depression, so we must learn to talk about it and the stigma must go because things will never change until we are more accepting that this is a real illness and not just a question of ‘perking up’."

Time To Change is the UK’s leading anti-stigma mental health charity. Speaking to the Huffington Post, Victoria Evans, Time To Change’s Senior Media Officer, said: "One in ten young people will experience a mental health problem, that’s about three people in every classroom. Yet so many people feel powerless to talk about it because of the fear of stigma and discrimination."

She adds: "Attitudes are formed at an early age and it’s so important that we reach out to young people who don’t have any direct experience or know much about mental health, to prevent them from developing stigmatising attitudes."

Evans stresses the challenges faced by young people suffering from mental illness in particular. "Around half of mental health problems start as a teenager and it’s hard enough for a young person to deal with the illness itself without being rejected by friends and classmates. Therefore, we need to do more in schools and universities to educate and raise awareness about mental health problems to show just how common they are and help more people to feel comfortable talking about them."

Fortunately, things are improving. Whilst university largely remains a daunting experience for those suffering with mental health problems, universities and students are beginning to challenge the stigma, and start talking about mental illness.

A group of students at the University of Edinburgh have recently set up a campaign, OpenMinded, aiming to challenge the stigma and misconceptions attached to mental illness, specifically targeting students who know very little about mental health and are complicit in the stigma.

Treasurer of OpenMinded, Eve Crotty-Joyce, said: "through gigs, comedy nights, spoken word, videos and posters, we want to create a dialogue around issues that affect so many, both within the student community and outside."