Investigation: Degrees of Distress

Investigation: Degrees of Distress

Anna Tomlinson explores the prevalence of mental health problems at university.

University marks a shift from life dominated by the strictures of school, to a life of almost total independence. This is particularly felt on non-campus universities such as UCL. We’ve left our familiar support networks, and are challenge to fend for ourselves while creating and fitting into new social systems in the heart of the capital.

Though exhilarating, this task can also be daunting as we’re forced to deal with new stressors in every aspect of our lives. We’re faced with a challenging course load, trying to figure out what we want to do after we graduate, and forging some of the most important relationships of our lives. Then there are the smaller challenges – filling out student tax forms, learning to cool properly and dealing with dodgy landlords.

Sometimes this flood of changes can become too much, especially for those who, due to personal reasons be they biological or otherwise, are more mentally vulnerable than the average student. Adjusting to university life can lead to an array of mental health issues, ranging from mood and anxiety disorders to substance abuse and eating problems.

In a survey carried out by the National Union of Students (NUS) in May 2013, 55% of students have experienced anxiety, 49% of students reported feeling depressed, and 80% cited stress as the most commonly experienced mental distress.

The survey also defined the triggers for mental agitation were coursework deadlines, exams and revision, relationship and family problems and finding a balance between study and other commitments. These triggers are defined as psychosocial stressors, and the mental distress they can cause led to 20% of the students interviewed diagnosed themselves as having mental health problems, whilst 13% reported having experienced suicidal thoughts.

The Head of Student Psychological Services at UCL, Catherine McAteer, cites similar statistics. She suggests that about 25% of UCL students suffer from mental health problems, of which 10% need professional help. She explained that the other 15% benefit from peer support networks and self-help libraries. Additionally, of the 25% of students suffering from mental health problems, 1% suffer from severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or personality disorders.

Dr Michael Detke, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine, commented that some of the “most devastating disorders occur at university age, such as substance abuse disorders, which peak between the ages of 16 and 25.” The vulnerability at that age is due the fact that, in very basic terms, the brain is still developing and neural pathways are still being formed.

But to what extent are mental health influenced by biology? According to Dr Janet Williams, professor emeritus at the departments of psychiatry and neurology at Columbia University, attributing mental health issues solely to biology is too simplistic: “undoubtedly both factors have an effect, but what creates a lot of vulnerability is psychosocial stressors.”

Psychosocial stressors are evidently prevalent while we’re studying at university, but she is quick to emphasise that, “all mental illness has some sort of biological basis,” meaning that our environment impacts the way in which our genetic predisposition is expressed.

Not many people understand the complex biology behind mental health problems, and this enforces social stigmas associated the issue. Depressed people feel understandably worse when people keep telling them to simply cheer up or take themselves less seriously, when the disorder is far more complex than that.

A person suffering from mental health issues is not at fault. Nobody can take direct responsibility for something caused by genetic makeup and external foreign influences. In order to take control of their mental state, rather than take responsibility for it, sufferers must receive the necessary support to restore their brain’s functions to a more stable state.

But do students have enough available support? After NUS’ survey, the NUS disabled students’ officer, Hannah Paterson commented: “These stats are confirming what I have been hearing on campuses for some time. My primary concern is the fact that over a quarter of those surveyed did not tell anyone about their problems with a mere one in ten using care provided by their institution.”

This is significant given both Dr Detke and Dr Williams believe that psychosocial stressors are psychosocial support networks – family, friends or mentors – can act as a buffer against psychosocial stressors.

McAteer, who has now worked at UCL’s Student Psychological Services for 13 years, explains that during this period there has been as increase in awareness and more provisions to help students deal with mental health problems. She explains that a university the size of UCL should statistically have three to four suicides each year; in the last seven and a half years there have only been two.

Undoubtedly, the programmes that have been put in place by student psychological services and UCL have helped to lower that number. Student psychological services is on track to help approximately 3,100 students this year, a number slightly higher than the 10% of students at UCL estimated to require professional help.

However, the stigma surrounding mental health problems hasn’t disappeared, which means that students who need help are still not getting it. McAteer emphasises that “people are ignorant, they don’t quite understand mental illness. This ignorance leads them to being quite prejudicial, dismissive, unkind or cruel.”

This, sadly, results in mental illnesses continuing within departments and outside the academic realm. Revealingly, departments in which students are propelled towards high-powered professions, such as law or medicine, often include many students who are vulnerable to mental health problems, as students struggle to cope with the many pressures placed upon them.

Academic pressures or “feeling stuck” are often what prompt students to seek help from student psychological services. Additionally, many of the programs for dealing with mental health at UCL wouldn’t be possible without a peer-based referral system. UCL provides an online form, called “cause for concern”, which allows the user to notify relevant staff about a student unable or unwilling to seek help on their own.

Due to the stigmas and societal pressures attached the hardest part about getting help is having to walk through the front door of student psychological services. In acknowledgement of this unfortunate reality, there is now an online form through which students can register. McAteer explained: “the year we began using the online form, registrations jumped from 840 to 1200. Because the online registration takes away a barrier, it can be filled out in an impulse.”

The service then provides support to students through various means, including individual counselling, group courses on dealing with issues such as stress or procrastination, as well as providing a self-help library. Support is also available through the Gower Place practice and UCL disability services.

At UCL we have to continue to work on creating an environment in which mental health problems lose their stigma once and for all. A person is not to blame for experiencing mental health problems, and an appreciation of the biological complexity of the brain is pivotal to unburdening ourselves from the misconceptions we associate with mental health.

There will be a time when we look back longingly on this part of our lives. A time when it didn’t matter whether we went home at lunch; when we could eat a whole pizza without worrying about calories; when drinking didn’t always precede an unbearable hangover. But for now, we need to deal with the very real downsides to university life, and we need to do so together.

For more information, visit UCL Psychological Services online.

Image via UCL Libraries

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