Ahead of University Mental Health Day, we spoke to Connie, 20, a student at a UK university. She spoke about helping her friend after a suicide attempt, lack of university support and the pressures facing students today.
I haven’t really had to use support services at university, which I know is fortunate. But a lot of my friends have.
There is quite a lot of support here, but it’s not always delivered in the right way. At the end of last year, one of my friends made a suicide attempt. I had to deal with the college because her parents didn’t help. The services were poor. I had to liaise with various people, take her to meetings and fill out forms without much support.
I saw how incredibly inflexible the uni system is for making allowances around exams. My friend was on the sofa next to me saying: I’ve been in hospital for three days, I can’t think about exams.
Meanwhile the tutor, who acknowledged that the situation was awful, said that unless she had a note saying she’d had six month’s medical treatment then he couldn’t be flexible with her sitting exams at the same time as everyone else. I mean, how much worse a situation can you get? It was a blanket no.
I would have liked some support too, actually. I had a hard time after my first term and told my tutor I was thinking of leaving and going elsewhere. The response was: yes, if you don’t like it, you should leave. There were no follow ups, and no check in.
I’d say that attempting to use the university’s counselling services is more common than not. It’s massively oversubscribed. Unless you have an immediate need or trauma you won’t see someone until a term after you’ve asked for it.
At this university that’s fine because most people’s parents will pay counselling fees, but I imagine as a lower income student, the wait after you flag that you need support is very stressful. That interim period when you have admitted you need help but can’t get it; that must be a tough time.
At university I think there’s enormous pressure to be having the best time of your life – as well as keeping up with academic work. It’s definitely do-able. I do go to a lot of social events, like balls and charity boxing matches or fashion shows, dinner parties for friend’s birthdays or nights out. But I think that’s fine because I do English, which has fewer contact hours. You can be clever about how you work. Friends who do more hour-intensive subjects feel more pressure to be at social events and keep up social appearances while still knowing they have to be at a 9am lecture.
Being seen here, here and here really runs people down. They’re feeling tired and feel unsure about when to say no to X,Y or Z and when to just stay in and have a bath and watch a film. I definitely don’t have enough time for myself. It’s easy to get run down quickly.
I have friends who have suffered quite badly with insomnia, anxiety and depression. A friend dropped out last year because of an eating disorder, but I think she was too unwell when she got here.
The word tossed around a lot is ‘fragile’. People are feeling a bit fragile in summative season – when work contributes directly to your final marks. Either you spend too much time with people and don’t have time to yourself, or you feel lonely. People tend to isolate more when they’re working hard. That can get people down. Definitely exacerbates depression. Friends who struggle feel worse when they have a lot of summatives due, working longer hours.
People here also worry about money, but I’m in a relatively affluent university. Students talk about having no money, but some are off skiing mid term or going out for dinner a couple of times a week. There is a pressure to keep up with that kind of lifestyle; that way of doing uni.
Others struggle. My boyfriend finds money difficult. In the holidays I come home and work at a restaurant. I get stressed seeing the overdraft get closer. I’m lucky though: my parents give me enough money to keep me going.
But support-wise, I think if people need to be seen, if they feel they need counselling, I think they should be seen within a week. If you’re in need of support, no matter how serious, an eight week turnaround is not acceptable. Seven days is already long enough, especially given the pace of life at uni. Ideally there would be far more provision or maybe a tired system when you can say you need counselling and it’s urgent.