A hugely competitive job market to enter, straddled with high student debt, and a demanding degree course to fulfil, mean mental health support for students at university should be top of colleges’ agenda, says a Priory expert.
Latest data from the Natwest Student Living Index says that almost half (45%) of all UK students feel ‘very stressed’ by their degree studies, with one in four agreeing that money management is a ‘very stressful’ additional issue.
The findings come as hundreds of thousands of students are due to arrive at university for the first time this month – with others following shortly afterwards to resume their degree courses.
The challenges and burdens facing the millennial generation were laid bare by a major report issued by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority earlier this year which said people in this age group “face a series of difficulties in building wealth … due to the combined impact of rising house prices, insecure employment and higher debt, including student debt”.
The Natwest annual survey1 highlights financial management and pressures of academic study as key areas of anxiety. The data, recorded from students across 35 universities, also included insight into the levels of mental health support already on offer for university students.
Students said that trying to study whilst juggling money issues added to their stress – only 14% of students said they had taken on a paid part-time job.
Students in Scotland felt the least stressed by money management, with the 2019 Student Living Index revealing that only 14% of students in Glasgow rated the issue as “extremely stressful” compared with a 23% national average. St Andrews residents (22%) are the least stressed by their studies whilst Stirling (30%) and Aberdeen (33%) also performed well.
However, this more positive attitude to money may be related to the fact that students who are originally from Scotland will be exempt from tuition fees, unlike those who have travelled north of the border.
Leading Priory adolescent and child psychiatrist, Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, says; “Now, perhaps more than any previous generation of undergraduates, students will start university life knowing their debt levels are rising from the day they start, as are house prices and the competitive nature of the job market. With added economic uncertainty, students are facing the worry that even with a degree they won’t find a job that will easily cover their rent, or enable them to access the property ladder. This is certainly reflected by increasing numbers of undergraduates accessing – or attempting to access – mental health services.”
Despite the prevalence of financial anxiety, the new data showed that 40% of students surveyed said that their university did not help then at all with money management, and if they do overspend, one third of students rely on an overdraft to supplement income. These stresses continue past university with 42% of all students feeling ‘very’ or ‘slightly concerned’ about their finances post-graduation.
Dr van Zwanenberg continues, “Financial worries, lack of experience looking after yourself and making friends hundreds of miles from home, as well as a pressure to achieve top grades, risk creating a negative impact on student life. In some cases, this is leading to increasing ‘drop out’ rates among students unable to cope. I cannot stress how important it is to open up and talk. There is no shame – and certainly should be no stigma – in admitting you are feeling overwhelmed by feelings of depression and anxiety.
“The time has come for us all to accept that student days have changed and whilst there’s no reason why they shouldn’t still be ‘the best days of your life’, students – and their parents – may have to adjust their expectations and be prepared for some pitfalls. With fees high and the jobs market highly competitive, it’s vital that mental health is supported throughout a degree course.”
A further study, carried out by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, showed that the number of students who disclosed a mental health condition almost doubled between 2012 and 2015, to nearly 45,000. Yet, despite this, national figures suggest that mental health difficulties within higher education are still underreported. Currently, just one in 125 students (0.8%) and around one in 500 staff (0.2%) have disclosed a mental health condition to their university.
So, if stress starts to spiral towards anxiety, self-harm or the prospect of ‘dropping out’, Dr van Zwanenberg offers 7 tips for both students and concerned families and friends;
Tap into existing support
If you have a diagnosed mental health condition, you may be entitled to a ‘disability allowance’. Dr van Zwanenberg says: “I have assisted lots of the young people in my clinic apply for a student disability allowance and they have received some funding to help them meet the extra cost of their mental health difficulties at university. Some have been given technology and many funding for therapy.
And if you’re stressed or anxious – whether due to concerns about money, your course or simply settling in – there are people to help. You can access medical professionals such as GPs, or counsellors, psychologists, welfare advisers, university counselling services or student union representatives. Your GP may refer you to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Priory Healthcare has Wellbeing Centres in cities where there are a high number of students, including Oxford, Manchester, Canterbury, Edinburgh, London and Birmingham. They are confidential services and accessing them will not affect your job prospects negatively (a common worry). The therapists will help you develop a plan for when you are feeling ‘at sea’ and this will help you feel more in the driving seat, and more in control and more able to succeed.
Feelings of being lonely can be defeated
University can be isolating. Moving away from home means students are often left without their safety blanket of friends, parents or siblings. Find at least three university clubs or societies that appeal to your skills, whether it be rowing or the student newspaper, and join up – they are often subsidised or even free to join. You are then instantly matched with like-minded people. Make the most of Freshers’ week, where clubs and societies urge you to join them. Universities will publish Freshers’ week schedules on their own websites or the Students’ Union website, and you’ll get sent information in your welcome pack.
Pause and concentrate on the moment and not the future
You may feel overwhelmed, but don’t forget, everyone is in the same boat. You have worked hard to get to university, but it should not feel like a pressure cooker and it is ok not to know what career you might follow at the end. Take each day as it comes.
Platforms, such as Instagram, can make it look like everyone is having a good time except you. Don’t judge your social status or social life by it. It’s a false measurement. A lot of people have left behind their friends and are starting afresh at university. Some people find this easier than others. Don’t panic. It can be hard work being away from home but see starting university as an opportunity to try new things within a safe and like-minded environment. Don’t feel you’re being judged.
Eat well, stay well
Make sure you eat healthily – it’s certainly possible to do, even on a tight budget. Eat well, stay well. Keep in mind simple recipes that can get you by. Find useful tips on how to make simple and cost-effective recipes (25 meals you should be able to cook by 11) here.
Don’t feel you have to sound like it’s all a big party. Have open conversations with family and friends about how you feel. Encourage them to visit. Always have someone to call. While sharing living space with people outside the family (and from different schools and backgrounds) is part of student experience for the majority, whether in halls of residence, or in various forms of shared private accommodation, it is not always easy and it’s important to learn to compromise and be tolerant of others.”
Dr van Zwanenberg adds; “Many universities offer fantastic counselling and welfare support services, which provide an ideal opportunity to talk through problems – whether practical, emotional or financial. Often, that is all that is needed to reverse a situation and prevent a downward dip into depression”