University: a degree in mental health

The end of university is a strange and conflicting time. With deadlines done and exams taken, ideally the only feelings we should be experiencing are joy, relief and giddy excitement at the prospect of new beginnings and fresh starts. No more all-nighters in the library, no more terrible campus coffee, and no more anxious waits for delayed student loan deposits…

This is supposed to be the time where the childish notions of classmates and homework are stripped away to reveal a professional, industry-ready graduate, fresh faced and ready to take on the world.

However, with one in four university students suffering from mental health problems, this expectation can seem like an impossible dream for many of those graduating this summer. During their time at university, many students will experience complex mental health issues and disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression. For a smaller percentage, these mental health problems can be even more serious, with many suffering from conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Many universities are well equipped to deal with these issues internally, and do offer many forms of help. However, for most, the student experience can be a major contributing factor to their struggles with mental health.

“Suddenly, everything that you hated about university becomes your favourite thing”

From my own personal difficulties with anxiety and depression, the student lifestyle was incredibly difficult to cope with. The academic pressures, the looming deadlines, the impression that a completed university degree was the only thing that would ever bring me success really played on my mind. It eventually warped my thinking into something I could barely even recognise. The stresses of living away from home with new people made my home life difficult, with seemingly no escape to just be myself.

The more anxious and depressed I felt, the more jobs I added onto my to do list just to distract myself. Over three years of university, the number of unfinished projects, unattended events and unaccomplished achievements I had weighing me down really did affect my lifestyle, to the point where my free time was virtually non-existent.

Then, it ends. All of a sudden, after submitting that final essay, there’s just nothing. You’re left with a void that is pretty much impossible to fill. Suddenly, everything that you hated about university becomes your favourite thing, and you long to go back to library sessions and damp student housing and cramped lecture theatres, just for something to do. For some students, this is the time that their mental health will be at its worst.

What is done to combat this by universities? Our lectures pile on the pressure throughout the year, but once that submission box closes, many students are left without the necessary support to see them through the difficult graduate transition. To closer examine the lack of support offered to students after the end of university, the last five emails in my university inbox focus on topics such as buying grad ball tickets and measuring up for graduate gowns.

“We need a greater focus on mental health after graduation”

Beyond these graduation-specific topics, almost every email in my inbox has been attempting to push job offer after job offer onto me, role after role, and salary after salary. Despite the fact that many university degrees don’t actually offer vocational or workplace skills, it’s clear what their priority is for their fresh batch of recently-graduated students.

What about their mental health? Has anyone been offered any form of welfare support or mental health counselling following the end of their final term? I understand that good graduate placement roles matter in the long run, but so does the mental health and stability of the student you’ve just released into the world.

Many students actually cite university as the cause of their struggles with mental health, with what seems like unnecessary stress and pressure from course demands and deadlines built up over the years spent there. Dissertations alone can cause a meltdown, let alone years of high intensity workloads and social expectations. Yet, the minute those lecture theatre doors are closed, they close for good, and we’re all on our own.

We need a greater focus on mental health after graduation. A deeper understanding of the process that many students go through following their release from the anxieties of university and their entrance into the anxieties of industry. Currently, I could list various recruitment agencies offering up highly paid and high-profile graduate jobs. I can’t, however, list any local therapists or counsellors who specialise in graduate mental health.

Universities should still have a responsibility to their students even after their academic careers are finished. Tutors should still care about the welfare of their students, no matter how long ago their final meeting was. Student committees should be offering further and broader support for every aspect of the graduate process. And the positive mental health of students shouldn’t be neglected for any number of Russell Group credentials and NSS points.

If you’re struggling with the transition from university to graduation, or you need to talk to someone regarding your mental health issues, there are many external services available to help. Charities such as Student Minds, UNHAM and the Mental Health Foundation are well equipped to advise you on where to go next following graduation, and to support you through this time.

Nikki McCaig

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. License here.

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