Giving you the insight into matters directly related to student life is the Pi Comment column, Spotlight: UCL, Universities and Young People, where our team of columnists tackle the issues affecting students today. Cathy Meyer-Funnel digs into the dynamics between social media, the communication generation, and the awareness surrounding mental health.
University is without doubt one of the biggest upheavals you will go through in your life – moving to a new area, making new friends and putting yourself under new levels of academic pressure as well as numerous other matters. Little wonder then, that university students are in the midst of a ‘mental health epidemic’; the BBC recently reported that those seeking mental health support while studying has increased by over 50% in five years. It certainly paints a grim picture but it may not be as straightforward, or indeed as disheartening, as it seems.
Have people really become more mentally unwell or have we in fact become better at addressing certain problems? Conditions such as anxiety and depression are well recognised modern phenomena, with the domination of social media making us feel less physically connected with each other and the prevalence of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) amongst our generation also helping to fuel this mental health fire. No one can deny that these issues are a negative side effect of recent technological and social developments but at least we are now better able to recognise where and how these illnesses may arise.
Mental health problems are not a new problem for society. If we cast our minds back to the aftermath of the First World War and the rise of soldiers being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or ‘shellshock’ as it was then known, we can better understand how treatments have improved. It was initially believed that the psychological trauma of soldiers were caused by nearby shell impact affecting their brains, resulting in a state of disorientation. Soldiers experiencing these symptoms were dismissed as ‘cowardly and weak’. The situation gradually improved, but the term PTSD was not coined until 1980. Clearly it takes time for emotional distress, with less obvious primary causes, to be fully recognised and its treatment to become part of our national responsibility.
Evidently, people have always suffered from the consequences of mental strain and society’s subsequent failure to acknowledge the problem. People have always been bereaved, depressed and anxious. It seems naïve to disregard the relationship between an increased awareness of the problem and a rising number of cases, as people feel more able to articulate their issues.
At a university-specific level, there have been complaints that the pastoral services provided are simply not sufficient enough to meet the growing demand for dealing with mental health issues. One particularly striking example can be found at Bristol University, where 10 students died over an 18-month period – with some of them being confirmed as suicides. Here at UCL, in the past year, students have protested for increased spending on mental health services to allow for more counsellors and more counselling sessions. It will certainly take time before supply can keep up with demand, yet we can be sure the demand is there.
One of the biggest hurdles that may not have been fully overcome is reducing the stigma associated with admitting a mental health problem and seeking treatment. The word therapy has carried with it unfair connotations of privilege, being the domain of a rich clientele who have no ‘real’ problems. However, society now attests to the benefit of talking it out. The old-fashioned stereotype of the British stiff upper lip is being replaced by the communication generation who are beginning to realise they no longer need to suffer in silence.
Despite many feeling that the constant chatter of social media has a rather destructive presence in the lives of those with mental health problems, the prevalence of social media in modern life has also been used for good. A recent Facebook campaign discussing the prevalence of male suicide -#itsoktotalk- has enabled dialogue surrounding a notoriously thorny issue. Around the world men have been sharing selfies captioned with this hashtag to spread awareness. While a few posts on your timeline will not completely crush the evils of toxic masculinity, it is enough to show that this is something we want and need to be brought to national attention.
If we consider this in the context of a 50% increase in students seeking mental health support in the last five years, modern factors certainly could be contributing to this increase. Nevertheless, we can also assume that people feel more able to talk about their feelings. There is now less judgment and greater access for people to express themselves, be that through cognitive behavioural therapy, counselling or hypnotherapy. Despite previous inaction and incompetence, the fact that this movement is gaining momentum with every new set of students proves that this is a fight we are starting to win. The process of addressing mental health may have become worse in recent times, but with that in mind we can start to make it better. The most positive impact we can be certain of is that people are finally speaking up.