Mental health of students

Students leave home, move town, lose support and friends and start a major academic challenge all in the space of Freshers Week! Some thrive, but many really struggle. Most will have some mental health difficulties throughout University or College - including those who drink to much... Higher Education is meant to be a time of enjoyment and finding yourself - not depression and losing yourself!

A recent report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that "students had higher levels of mental health symptoms" and "these are disruptive to their education and emotional development". Many Universities have Counselling Services which provide excellent services, but are often stretched to the limit and not tied in with other services [like housing or the NHS] and can sometimes not take a student's faith seriously. Mental health problems are common - although only 0.16% declared a mental health need on starting university, 3% consult counselling services each year, and 8% do so at some time during their studies.

Major mental illnesses like schizophrenia are mercifully rare, though every University will see several people developing psychotic symptoms as new students arrive - often from overseas or associated with drugs. More common are the hidden but equally paralysing problems of anxiety and depression. About 20% will have some anxiety or depression and a further 5-10% have an eating disorder. Almost 50% of male students have alcohol at levels higher than the Government recommendation and many have severe binge drinking problmes - getting very drunk twice a week every week. 20% will have taken Class A drugs. 10% will have had suicidal ideas in the last term and between 2-5% will have actually tried to end their lives with a much higher percentage using self-harm regularly to relieve tension. Roughly 200 current students a year die by suicide across the UK, with more deaths likely among those who drop out and return home.

There are some variations known: a stable upbringing and coming from a higher social class helps, and being female and young is protective for suicide, wheras being older, male and from overseas are risk factors for suicide. Sadly, the opposite is true for emotional distress, with young females being the most distressed group. The start of the academic year is especially stressul, and also before exams - both the first and second semester.

University Counselling Services are encouragaed by national guidelines and most institutions have them - though sometimes not smaller colleges. Mental Health Promotion - bringing awareness and reducing stigma - is active onk many campuses. Most larger Universities will also have a group coordinating links with voluntary organisations and the NHS.

Although most students are now acknowledging that a problems exists, being a student with a mental health problem can be a very lonely thing. Having a religous belief or a personal faith is a protective factor against becoming depressed, but [and here the bitter irony] can often be a source of extra guilt if you do become unwell. It can be hard to tell others at your church, and they may tell you that this sort of thing shouldn't happen to Christians. When you are depressed, it can be hard to get involved in the miriad of activities on campus, making it even more isolating as everyone else is so busy. Dropping out of church anad turning to drink or drugs are easy solutions that can seem like a good idea at the time.

Your own University Counselling Service will be able to tell you what special support is on offer locally - find one here. Chaplaincy services are often a good place to start as well - most Chaplains will be very experienced with mental health issues and be non-judgemental. They can be a good person to talk to [in confidence] if you are finding your usual church hard. Many pastoral staff at student churches will also have a lot of experience and may well be more understanding that you think - do talk to them!

Students Against Depression - a new site offering lots of resources and personal stories.
Rob Waller, 23/07/2008