Recent years show an alarming trend amongst students. Rising rates of mental illness show little sign of slowing. In the past ten years, suicide rates have almost doubled. In York, up to 50% of ambulance call-outs to the university were for self-harm or suicide attempts. This is a far from localised issue‒ it’s an epidemic.
Some of the reasons behind the skyrocketing levels of depression and anxiety (reported in the Independent as a 70% increase over the past 25 years) seem so obvious it’s almost surprising they make the headlines. The latest culprits are tuition fees and an ever-increasing cost of living (as all of us in London can attest to). What is worrying is the number of students that cannot afford to pay rent (over a quarter) or even eat (39%) because of their lack of financial support. And while technically tuition fees shouldn’t be a problem while still at university (due to the availability of student loans) that doesn’t stop any of us worrying about our accumulating debt.
Other common factors are all too familiar. Stress, alcohol, a poor diet, and a lack of sleep and exercise have all been cited as contributors to poor mental health. Frustratingly, reports rarely seem to mention how difficult it is to escape these patterns when you have a mental illness. It’s hard to go to the gym and eat healthily when you barely have the energy to drag yourself into lectures each day (hardly a unique experience for students and perhaps one reason it can be so tricky to recognise depression). And sleep doesn’t come easily when you’ve spent all night worrying about your next assignment.
A recent review into the culture at Imperial revealed a particularly adverse environment when it comes to fostering good mental health. Researchers created a word cloud describing the culture at Imperial using responses from surveyed participants. Although there were 246 positive descriptors, 186 were negative, and a further 213 deemed ambiguous. Highlights include: “cut-throat”, “abusive”, “authoritarian”, and “homogeneous” (in case you’d forgotten that we’re all scientists). Furthermore, the pressure to live up to Imperial’s reputation for excellence leaves many students feeling alienated and in constant competition with their peers. None of this is exactly conducive to a happy student population. So what can be done about it?
Students can receive individual support from the College’s Student Mental Health Advisers (SMHA)but only if referred by a staff member. This risks leaving many students without help since those with mental health issues can find it difficult to reach out to others and members of staff may never even realise that a student is struggling. Those with a referral must wait until a suitable appointment becomes available. The Imperial website gives no indication of how long this takes on average and at time of writing, the mental health service has not responded to our requests for comment. If other universities are anything to go by, it doesn’t look good. Many students have to wait weeks before receiving an appointment, during which time their condition can rapidly deteriorate with dangerous effects.
If face-to-face counselling isn’t an option, there’s the possibility of doing it over email. This pilot scheme was launched at the start of the current academic year and allows students to self-refer (although you do have to fill in a registration form and questionnaire to check your suitability). If accepted, students are initially offered four email exchanges with a counsellor (with the possibility of adding an extra four sessions if necessary). The service is aimed at students who spend most of their time off-campus (e.g. on work placements) but could be a real help for those who have difficulties vocalising their emotions.
Of course there are some downsides. Confidentiality problems are solved fairly easily by handling emails in private. A trickier issue however is that emails can’t convey physical and verbal cues so miscommunication has the potential of becoming a real issue. Additionally, only being able to send one email per appointment makes it harder to maintain a continuous dialogue.
Tackling the mental health crisis isn’t just a matter of hiring more professionals (although better student to staff ratios would certainly help). Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Buckingham and a vocal commentator on student mental health, recommends a “collegiate atmosphere” and “sense of community” within universities things Imperial has been criticised as lacking but could easily rectify by providing more communal spaces. Finally, we need to challenge the stigma around mental illness. Our male-dominated culture of excellence may make students even less likely to admit to needing help. We shouldn’t let students in need slip through the cracks.
The College’s 2015-2020 strategy promises to “be mindful of the need to promote good mental health” and “prioritise the mental well-being of the student body”. Whether this will be effective remains to be seen.