10 December 2016

"Students have it easy, try getting a real job!" - 130 student suicides in one year says differently. Stop sidelining students' mental health.

So often students hear complaints like 'oh you students have easy lives, all you have to do is go to lectures and then write essays/take exams, try getting a real job'. Well, actually, our lives are difficult and, generally, we are at university to try to help ourselves get 'a real job' in the future (although it doesn't always turn out that way). This sidelining of students' mental health is really worrying. Saying that students 'have it easy'  just makes us feel as if our very real mental health issues are not legitimate.
The University of Bristol has reported 3 student deaths by means of suicide so far this Autumn Semester (between September and December). In 2014, 130 students (about the size of one of my first year lectures) in England and Wales committed suicide (97 of these were male, 33 female). This was a massive increase from 2007 when numbers were 75. Why have numbers almost doubled?

  • Rising tuition fees. 
  • Less financial support for students.
  • Stigmatisation of students' mental health.
  • More pressure on school leavers to go to university to obtain a degree despite fewer job prospects for graduates.
  • The marketisation of our universities. 
'Why shouldn't you pay to get a degree? It's your choice...oh, but you won't get a job in this labour market without qualifications', says Mr Cameron who went to university for free with a grant.

After 3 years studying an undergraduate degree I am now in £44,000 worth of debt (plus a 4.6% rate of interest). This can buy a 3 bedroom semi-detached house in Manchester. If I go out now and get a 'real job', I pay 9% of everything that I earn over £21,000 to the Student Loans Company. In reality, most graduates face the reality of not being able to obtain a well-paid job in the field in which they have spent 3 years training in and paying a lot of money for. This is, effectively, a second mortgage. The likelihood of me getting on the property ladder in the near future is slim.
So no. Our lives are not easy.
People are very dismissive of the debt that students rack up, calling it a 'graduate tax' and seemingly ignoring the fact that it has very real consequences on our lives.
Some students have to rely on family support on top of student loans just to pay the rent. Many whose families don't have the financial resources to help them end, up in further debt with loan-sharks and pay-day loan companies, or have to balance working alongside their degree.

'It's only a few essays and exams, what are you so worried/stressed about?'
Then there is the academic pressure. We're paying £9k a year for the 'privilege' of gaining a degree at an institution that doesn't really care whether we pass or fail, even if it says it does. It's up to us. Hours in the library. Hours in lectures. Hours reading around the subject. Hours doing extra-curricular activities to boost our CVs. All the time a student 'should' dedicate to their studies PLUS the hours that many students have to spend doing part-time work just to have enough to live on.
But we should be able to cope, right? Living on 18p noodles from Lidl is 'character-building' right?

'Bloody Students! No idea what it's like in the real world - make the most of it'
Yes, deadlines are deadlines, they universally suck. BUT you're getting paid to meet your work deadlines. We are paying for the 'privilege' of tons of stress and pressure around assessment time. We don't want to waste nearly £50k of taxpayers' money by not working hard for our degrees. We're competing in a globalised labour market with people from all around the world, we need those top grades to stand out.
But we are not androids. We are not emotionless dopes. We get stressed. We get depressed. We are anxious. Can you blame us? Financial pressure, academic pressure, emotional pressure, pressure from family to do well, labour market pressure. Are we supposed to just switch off our emotions and ignore our own wellbeing for the three or four years we're at university?

'You've got it easy'
This assumption that students lead an 'easy' life and therefore can't/shouldn't complain is dangerous. It results in students feeling that their real mental health issues are illegitimate, that they shouldn't be stressed or depressed or anxious about university assignments or exams. It means they are less likely to ask for help and result to drastic measures. Mental health is stigmatised in society in general, especially for males, but students' mental health even more so. University is heralded as the 'best time of your life' when, for many, that couldn't be far enough from the truth. It is a time of change, it challenges all your preconceptions, your beliefs, the way you feel about yourself but this change isn't always positive - it can be confusing, upsetting, and can alienating.

We're YOUR future
If we're constantly being told by society that we don't have the right to feel depressed or stressed about anything, then we're less likely to seek help. Moreover, we doubt ourselves further because we feel like we should be coping, like we're not allowed to be overwhelmed because we're mere students. Well guess what? We're the people who will be running your country when you're elderly. We'll be saving your lives in hospitals. We'll be creating policy which decides how much pension you receive. We'll be caring for you. For now though, you need to care for us and accept that we are going to have mental health issues during stressful periods of our university lives . We may be 'only students' to you, but we're still people. And people get scared. People get stressed, anxious, depressed, upset, angry and all the other emotions. But the difference is that we're paying for our mental health problems. We're paying £27k minimum (for English students) to feel this way because we legitimately believe that, through gaining our degrees, we can help to change the world for the better and succeed.
The sooner society realises that students do not have it easy, the sooner we can tackle the stigma surrounding students' mental health and start improving mental health provisions at universities across the UK. But until that happens, more and more students will sadly decide that there is only one way out.

 **Please note - I am using the tuition fee costs for English students as these are the highest, I understand that the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland have different legislation on tuition fee amounts. This is just my experience.**
Statistics cited from ONS.
See https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/nov/26/bristol-student-deaths-highlight-campus-crisis-in-mental-health for an article concerning the recent 3 student suicides at University of Bristol