Wallflowers blossom, party kids prosper and the sheltered have their day in the sun. Widely seen as the life stage equivalent of the Age of Aquarius, Sarah Kipling looks at why the university experience sends some to the dark place instead.
Some of the less stimulating aspects of the university experience have been known to include overnight library vigils, thrice daily servings of ramen, and insufferable lecturer Powerpoint abuse. In fact, one of the best kept secrets about the university experience is that it can be just as tedious and demanding as ‘real life’. But more than that; in many cases it can provide an environment with the potential to trigger harmful mental health issues.
Overwhelming academic pressures, the upheaval of moving away from a secure home base, separation anxiety, poor eating and sleeping habits, the affliction of having to live with terrible, terrible people; all of these can amount to significant emotional strain, to the extent that studies published in The Times have estimated that up to one in four students will encounter some form of mental health issue, including depression, at some point during their university career. And those are just the ones that are telling.
Unhelpfully, the expectation that, poverty and workload aside, students will never again have it so good, is one that unites a vast proportion of students and non-students alike. Such students will seek to prolong their ‘extended adolescence’ for as long as possible in the hopes of staving off entry into law-giving society. Never mind that adolescence was terrifying enough the first time around.
Parents especially will take pains to emphasise the division between student and adult responsibility – efforts you might remember from such oldie hits as ‘How will you cope when you have to live in the real world?’ and its sequel, ‘Welcome to the real world’. One of those curious little turns of phrase that loses none of its freshness no matter how many blows you’ve been dealt, this totally unhelpful turd peanut of elder wisdom is never worse than for those whose ‘glory days’ have been anything but giggle-farts and rainbows.
Because, truth be told, university is not necessarily synonymous with non-stop sexytimes, incestuous central coffeehouses – and no, not even pig-mascot pilfering monkeyshines. And, underwhelming as the reality may be in comparison, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
But when such generalisations are coupled with the sort of environment in which excessive drinking and sitting around in your bathrobe all day are not recognised as red flags, but totally legitimate, even actively encouraged, behaviours, issues like student depression and anxiety disorders can slip through the net of detection.
To make matters worse, the general emotional detachment of tutors and staff, and the relative anonymity which university life affords, can intensify these issues by enabling sufferers to isolate themselves frighteningly easily. Because chances are, unless you’re living a sun-suffused sitcom cliché and happen to make bffs with all your flatmates on your first day, universities are so vast and fast-paced that if you withdraw most people will simply be too busy with their own junk to notice.
Of course, university can be a brilliant opportunity for establishing lifelong relationships; however, much like any book or film about high school ever made, the most interesting people usually have to be rooted out, or stumbled across providentially – preferably in some bold yet fruitless show of solidarity against a hatchet-faced schoolmarm. But for many, especially those who don’t relate to the constitutional student lifestyle (or, as a commentator more tactfully put it, “If you don’t drink, you’re screwed”), this process doesn’t happen right away, or even in the first year at all. Sometimes it only occurs after having spent much longer finding your niche. And, while it does get better, honest, in the meantime, university can be a very isolating place to be for the hops and malted barley-resistant.
And, in the spirit of myth-busting, contrary to tripe about the sweet sweetness of a life lived without consequences, the trajectory of a university student’s current and future existence is determined as a consequence of decisions and actions they made when they were no more than sixteen years old. A subject regrettably passed over at GCSE level could well mean barred entry at A-Level and, in turn, a missed opportunity at degree level. A subject gone into at degree level might turn out to be taking you in completely the wrong direction – but you’ll never know until you’re there. A slipped grade at A-Level could entail entry into a far from ideal conditional option with shoddy accommodation arrangements squeezed in as an afterthought. Or maybe you didn’t know what you wanted to do, and blundered into a generalist degree that is making you miserable.
Such circumstances are not impossible to reverse; in some cases, time, and in all cases, a boatload of money, can niftily turn a situation around. But, with the hefty increase in tuition fees and the drawn-out university admissions process, many can’t afford to make such U-turns, or miss their window, and are left either to tough out a course in Taxation Studies that seemed like a good idea at the time, or driven to leave altogether. It is this lack of control over the direction of one’s life, that university can at once so skilfully facilitate and obliterate, that can be so distressing.
Most universities do, encouragingly, offer free basic counselling services as part of a student support system, and some additionally allocate personal tutors for help and advice. And, though these services can prove invaluable, the part such support realistically plays in the day-to-day life of your workaday student can vary.
On the whole, a greater understanding of student depression and other mental health issues is called for from universities; because, though universities are concerned with keeping students in university, it would seem little is being done to make sure a student is exactly where they want to be. But perhaps most importantly, greater awareness is called for from the student body itself; instead of castigating the resident ‘loner’, consider instead the difficulties they could be tackling. Because, whether they are suffering from depression or not, everyone has a different experience of university that is neither more or less real than the next person’s. And self-reinforced student stereotyping, no matter how semi-accurate, holds all concerned back from embracing the full spectrum of the student experience – and partaking in it, whatever that might be.