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Articles > Mental Health June, 21, 2012

Depression and University: When Your Glory Days are Rainy Days

Sarah Jayne Kipling
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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.

photo by Judith Doyle

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.

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  1. Ev Skipper-Byer

    I suffered with depression and anxiety when studying A-levels. Thus, I opted out of Uni in 2013, when the majority of my friends went. At the time, I still wasn’t over my anxiety and depression, but taking a gap year has done me the world of good, as I am working towards a full recovery.
    However, the same can’t be said for some of my friends that attend university. Most of the comments from them about university are negative. It’s really sad to see them so upset. I feel most of them have now got themselves into a downward spiral, where self-efficacy has become part of their everyday routine.
    Personally, I believe life is what you make it. Similarly, uni is what you make it. If you go there with a negative attitude, where you aren’t willing to socialise and make an effort, then you’re bound to feel secluded and not enjoy it. If you have a positive attitude and make the most of it, then you’re bound to have a good time and make good friends and memories. After all you are paying to be there. I think it depends on your attitude and willingness, after all it’s just a process and you have to ride it out.

  2. Annalise Godby

    Despite being out going and confident and have not found it difficult to make great friends I am still struggling with depression in my first year of University, there is an overwhelming feeling of going nowhere in the first year as you find yourself repeating material from previous education and covering general material to get everyone up to speed. There’s also a pressure from the friends that aren’t in University as they feel superior due to their ‘hard working lives’ and how apparently a few lectures a day does not match the effort they go through daily, the unnecessary competition of who works hardest and constant reminder that so many graduates fail to find a job are huge knocks to self esteem from the people who are meant to be helping you through this time.
    University, for the majority who push themselves and work hard, is a colossal emotional struggle and exhausts your every resource, bank balance and energy levels. So many times I’ve debated sacking this off and going back to a 9-5 as I found that a hell of a lot easier to go through.
    I urge any struggling student to break out of their shell in uni and just find as many people to talk to as you can, you’ll find people who understand you and go through the same turmoil at the same time, I’ve found 3 girls who are in the same mental state as me and we all use each other to pull ourselves along.

  3. John Wadeson

    I origionaly went to university back in 2010 but i felt like i was going insane as i had started to hear voices as clearly as i could hear them when talking to someone. as i had not spoken to my university prior to this about my depression and my new symptoms when things were getting way to much for me i finally broke down and ended up leaving my course after only 3 months. Now after 4 years i have received medical health for my depression and my new symptom which turned out to be psychosis. i still have these symptoms but i have learn to accept what it is and i have treatment to keep them under control. I am still in contact with all the people i went to university with and they all said it was hard work but after the three years they are now fully qualified nurses and they all said it was worth it. On the other hand i have another friend who i have known all my life who went to university lived in and spend her nights drinking and partying and she got her degree but isnt doing anything with it. So to round this off univeristy is a huge step up from college and to anyone who says it isnt then they are mad. But it is mean to be a great and rewarding experience.

  4. Joshua Strange

    This has really helped me ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ everyone was telling me that university life is ‘great’ and ‘amazing’ and this article has really spoke to me about how actually it can be extremely damaging. I think more things should be put in place to not only help university students, but students of all ages, as many of them are being forced to push themselves beyond their mental capacities, to ensure that they get a good job so they can have a decent lifestyle, which is much more necessary especially in this economic climate. I for one will ensure that I speak up if I begin to notice a change in my behavior when I attend university in September.

  5. Peter Butterworth

    An excellent article. I am fortunate to be a mature (in years) student studying counselling / psychotherapy and, once qualified, will be available to students students in my final year. Fortunately my University has a proactive approach to this.The above words have certainly made me reflect on the reality of student life for some. It’s not helped by the typical ‘elephant in the room’ attitude to mental health issues by the wider public but added to that is the stereotypical older persons attitude “Depressed? What have you got to be depressed about? You have your whole life ahead of you” It is worth noting that 1 in 5 deaths of people between the ages of 20 and 24 is by means of suicide. I think we all have a responsibility to develop a greater awareness of mental health problems and how we can support family / friends / colleagues (as well as caring for ourselves) The stigma associated with mental illness, although diminishing is still a very powerful barrier to asking for help and support. Sometimes just ‘being there’ with a willingness to listen can make a difference.

    • Sarah K.

      Thank you! You are so right about negative attitudes and a general need to be receptive to others’ difficulties. It’s awesome that you and your uni have a more progressive approach to this – hopefully it catches!

  6. Michelle Hinds

    I think it’s a first year thing! Looking back I can say first year was an absolute hell, but of course it’s only with focused recovery and hindsight you can really see how bad things are/were. I think there’s definitely more that needs to be done, especially to help those with a pre-disposition to mental illness. Glad someone’s finally highlighting this; I wouldn’t wish my first year of uni on anybody. Really outstanding article, speaks volumes. Hope to hear more of your stuff! x

    • Sarah K.

      Why thank you! Indeed, first year can be rough. It’s around that time that social pressures/expectations are at their highest, and for the quieter among us, it can seem really easy to miss that “window” for starting and consolidating relationships. It was only a few terms in/second year that I got into my stride (or shuffle, as it were :P).

  7. Amy Ireland

    I’m in my first year of uni & have suffered with depression for 4 years, being at uni has somewhat changed my life completely. It’s almost had the opposite effect on what has been said above. I am more outgoing, I don’t sit in self pity watching the hours pass until my day is over, I’ve met some of the best people and have even became bestfriends with some, obviously suffering with depression you get your down days and your really really bad days where you are constantly at your worst but being at uni has gave me the get up & go attitude and when I’m older I can look back and be proud for taking the chances I have. Uni is an amazing experience and I will cherish it forever.

    • Sarah K.

      Hi Amy,

      That’s fantastic to hear – uni certainly has the potential to be be hugely beneficial for some. While my personal time at uni was not always easy, I am still glad I went and feel it was an important experience for me.

      However, it’s true that the setting can also pose particular challenges, especially for those with a certain personality type, lifestyle leaning, personal struggle or predisposition to mental illness. You’re fortunate to have made lasting friendships, but my article was intended to raise awareness that these student perks aren’t necessarily universal, for whatever reason. I am not saying these issues are insurmountable, but, having gone through depression yourself, you will know that this is sometimes far more complex than just “sitting in self-pity”.

      The fact remains that unis, authorities and the general public can still do so much more to ensure the mental wellbeing of students. Socially conditioned attitudes and expectations have become connected with the university experience that can do more harm than good, and I have heard more than one close friend tell of how frighteningly easy it was for them to “drop off the radar” when they were struggling – these things desperately need to change.

  8. Rebecca Bowles

    This is the first time I have seen how I have felt so far into my first year actually articulated, so thankful somebody else gets it.

    • Sarah K.

      I’m so sorry to hear that, Rebecca, but am glad that my article gave you some encouragement. I know just how isolating uni can be, and the other comments posted show that we’re obviously not alone in this. I sincerely hope you manage to “find your niche” in time.

  9. I don't want to leave my real name...

    Exactly. I’ve just finished 1st year, and it was the undisputed worst year of my life. I hate the stereotypical “student life” and this makes me feel somewhat alienated. Coupled with the fact the majority of the other people in halls who don’t go out are the Christian Union – another group I can’t identify with – uni has been very hard to settle in to.

    My main problem is being apart from my girlfriend. We’re at different unis having completely different experiences – she loves uni, I hate it. This difference in experience makes life even harder, and I cannot wait until uni is over.

  10. Michaela Chesters

    Thank you for finally paying attention to this. My first year of university has been hell and on top of having to struggle with depression, the idea that uni is the time of your life and seeing all of your friends thriving only serves to make you feel guilty for not enjoying it enough. Uni is built up so much that when it doesn’t meet your expectations your mind can’t deal.

  11. Lily

    Thank you for writing this. You have captured (rather eloquently) my experience for the past couple of years at uni in this one article. It has been a truly miserable experience- though knowing other people out there feel the same is, perhaps selfishly, somewhat heartening.

  12. Chris

    Many thanks for sharing a brave and insightful piece. All too often, the darker experiences of these so-called salad days are unfairly overlooked and, by extension, of course, the concept of the student experience to which those at risk have likely been too-often exposed doesn’t allow for any hiccups. Encountering anything different from that manufactured bit of marketing can play havoc with a vulnerable mind in a new place, and more must be done to highlight the problem. Thank you for this.