The campus mental-health myth

Being a bit stressed out doesn't make you mentally ill.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

Last week, it was reported that money worries are stressing out British students. According to research carried out by the National Union of Students (NUS) and commissioned by Future Finance, concerns about debt are affecting the mental health of 36 per cent of students.

Barely a day passes without a reminder that being a student is bad for your mental wellbeing. Alongside the NUS report, the University of York last week revealed that over half of all ambulance call-outs to campus so far this year have been to incidents of attempted suicide or self-harm, compared with 32 per cent last year and only 14 per cent in 2014. Meanwhile, the University of Bristol kicked off its ‘Mind Your Head Month’ with the apposite question: ‘Is there a student mental-health crisis?’

Graphic firsthand accounts of what it’s like to be a student suffering from depression or anxiety regularly appear in the higher-education section of the Guardian and the online student newspaper the Tab. Contributors argue they are reducing the stigma surrounding mental health by making their problems public, but, in the process, they leave a permanently accessible record of their mental state at one given moment in time. Beyond the anecdotal, it is difficult to know whether or not there is a student mental-health crisis. Even the news about ambulance call-outs for attempted suicides at York serves to alarm rather than clarify; we need to know how many incidents of attempted suicide there were in total and not just the percentage increase.

In 2011, research conducted by the charity Student Minds estimated that around 29 per cent of students experience mental distress. In 2013, the NUS suggested 20 per cent of students have a mental-health problem. Just one year later, the NUS investigated student mental health again. This time it found that 78 per cent of students had experienced mental-health issues in the past year, and a third had reported suicidal thoughts. In 2015, Universities UK reported that university counselling services were facing an annual rise in demand of about 10 per cent, and are being accessed by between five and 10 per cent of students, depending on the university. It’s not just in the UK: in the US, a national survey conducted in 2010 found that more than 50 per cent of college students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult for them to function.

Such widely varying statistics tell us more about those asking the questions than they do about students. Some charities and campaigning organisations are incentivised to come up with headline-grabbing reports. Perhaps more significantly, there are no standard definitions used in such surveys. Stress and anxiety are seen as being on a continuum with depression and suicidal thoughts – they are all lumped together in the category of mental-health issues. In reality, some negative emotions, such as stress, may be temporary, and might encourage students to do some work, whereas others need to be taken far more seriously. The blurring of the boundaries between the normal stress and anxiety most people feel some of the time, and serious mental-health problems, does nobody any favours. As a result, counselling services become colonised by the worried well as students are unable to distinguish between everyday emotions and mental-health problems.

However, these surveys and anecdotal mental-health news stories do tell us about perceptions. Clearly, increasing numbers of students today consider themselves to have a mental-health issue. The truly alarming question we need to confront, then, is why so many bright young people, students with the world at their feet, have come to perceive of themselves as mentally unwell. Those investigating student mental health point to increased levels of debt, social-media use, and greater pressure to achieve academically in order to compete in a competitive labour market. But none of these factors alone explains why students are more likely to consider themselves to be suffering mental-health problems.

The rise in tuition fees has meant increased debt for students when they leave university, but no one is asked to pay any money back while they are still studying. Only when people are earning over £21,000 a year is tuition fee debt deducted automatically from their salaries, making it more akin to an additional tax rather than a debt. At the same time as stress over debt is reported to be on the increase, we have also seen the rise in luxury halls of residence. It seems that few students are prepared to put up with shared bedrooms or even shared bathrooms.

Such simple explanations for the mental-health crisis are always accompanied by calls for more support. York is now promising to take ‘a proactive approach to social media’ to prevent online abuse. At Bristol, there is a call for greater help to be given to students who are managing their money for the first time. However, this institutional support infantilises students and ignores more fundamental issues about being young today. Student concerns about tuition fees take the form of individualised mental-health problems, whereas, in another era, they might lead to collective political protest. As for unemployment, students are not unemployed, they are are just pre-empting potential unemployment. What’s more, unemployment levels were much higher in the past, and students then did not rush to counselling services like they do today. It seems as if students label themselves as having mental-health concerns first and then search around for an explanation.

So why are today’s young adults so convinced they have mental-health issues? Because students enter university having spent their childhood being made aware of mental-health problems. Children learn that education, especially exams, can prompt stress and anxiety, and that this is to be avoided. Last week, there was a ‘kids’ strike’ in protest at primary-school tests that campaigners argued made children stressed, anxious and even depressed. Older children discuss mental health in lessons and assemblies; younger children can become play leaders and peer mentors; and all are taught the therapeutic vocabulary of mental health. This hyper-awareness continues when students enter higher education. Universities hold mental-health weeks and poster campaigns, they provide therapy dogs, petting zoos and a host of other elaborate (not to mention infantile) de-stress interventions in the run-up to exam time.

A recent survey from the US notes that on college campuses with ‘wide support for mental health issues’, students are 20 per cent more likely to receive mental-health services, and 60 per cent more likely to receive that help on campus. The more interventions and counsellors the university makes available, the more demand there is for such services. This has been interpreted as showing a vast unmet need for mental-health provision. However, there is an alternative explanation. It might be the case that the more students are made aware of mental-health problems, the more they are taught to interpret normal emotions as problematic, and the more they are told that being a student makes them uniquely vulnerable, the more likely it is that they will see themselves as suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. When young people are told that their everyday feelings and emotions are a mental-health issue, it is hardly surprising that they come to interpret them in that way.

Now, universities, like schools, having contributed to a perception of vulnerability in young people, seek to ameliorate this through character education and lessons in resilience. Such classes can only make matters worse. Indeed, if students really are experiencing mental-health problems because they are worried about debt, perhaps universities should ditch the therapeutic interventions and lower fees instead. The campus mental-health crisis will only end when children and students are no longer constantly told that they are mentally ill.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. Her new book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge, is published by Palgrave Macmillan UK. (Order this book from Amazon (USA).

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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