Imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by a phone call from your frantic 18-year-old son, threatening to take his own life. Miles away from home in a university hall of residence, where he has struggled to find his feet and is suffering desperately from crippling anxiety, your previously happy, bright, high achieving boy is audibly cracking at the seams. And there is nothing you can do but try to calm him down.
“Tom felt he just didn’t fit in at university,” says Anna of her 24-year-old son, who became deeply unhappy and isolated during his three years as a neuroscience undergraduate at Bristol. My son would call and say: ‘That’s it. I’m going to end it. I’m going to the bridge’ “Other people seemed to have more confidence, which he was lacking,” she says, explaining that though he seemed to have the world at his feet when he left school, just a few weeks into his first term, the pressure to fit in and perform socially began to get to him.
“The thing about Bristol is you have all these young people who have had a good education, people with a lot of money, who can speak very well, who are able to fool people into thinking they are ok. But often it’s exactly the opposite.“He couldn’t speak to anyone about what he was feeling. He would call and say: ‘That’s it. I’m going to end it. I’m going to the bridge.’ “You can imagine how that felt in the middle of the night. I’m here, he’s there – I can’t do anything but try to talk to him and calm him down.”
By the time Tom graduated, having nearly dropped out on several occasions, he was exhausted from the strain of it all. Having been a happy teenager with good friends and a stellar academic record, he left university a changed person.
“He didn’t do anything for months,” says Anna, 57, a property manager from London. “No job applications, no further study, nothing. He wasted a whole year before eventually applying to do a Masters in London, which he completed in two years rather than one because he couldn’t cope.” She believes that her son, who is still suffering from depression three years after graduating, is one of thousands of young people up and down the country suffering from untreated mental health problems because they don’t know where to turn.
When they do seek help, the waiting lists for counselling or therapy on the NHS are often prohibitively long. And if they do get an appointment, she feels the experts who are meant to support them are out of touch with what it means to be a young adult in today’s world: “I don’t think they understand young minds,” she says.
And young minds appear to be under mounting pressure. According to ONS figures, the number of deaths by suicide among students in England and Wales alone has risen by over 50 per cent in the past ten years. Meanwhile, universities across the UK are facing a 50 per cent rise in demand for their mental health services, as students present more and more frequently with high levels of stress and anxiety.
Last week, Bristol University came under fire after a third-year student became the fifth suspected to have taken their own life in six months. 21-year-old Elsa Scaburri was halfway through a year abroad as part of her French and Italian degree when she was found dead in the barn of a farm near her family home in Wiltshire last Monday.
Miranda Williams, 19, Daniel Green, 18 and Kim Long, 18, died within weeks of the start of their first term at the university last year, while Lara Nosiru, 23, a final year student, died in January. A spokesman for the university said it had begun a review of its mental health care offering: “The University of Bristol takes student health and wellbeing very seriously and we would urge any students who are feeling anxious, depressed or lonely to seek support.
“In the context of increasing national concerns about student mental health, the university began a review of our support for students last summer, working with the Students’ Union. We are planning to invest an additional £1 million per year to introduce Student Wellbeing Posts into each of our academic schools.“We are also investing additional resources in our specialist Students’ Health and Counselling Services to ensure they are able to continue to meet the increasing demand from our students for mental health and wellbeing support.”
While there is no correlation between the deaths, and it would be wrong to assume mental illness is just a problem at Bristol – an investigation was launched into the suicides of as many as five students at York University last year – students have been left understandably shaken by the events of the past few months.
Speaking to a group of girls in their second year in a rowdy pub in the Redland area of the city, Rebecca – a 20-year-old politics student – tells me that “most” of the students she knows have gone through a bad patch while at the university; though she’s noticed more are opening up about their own struggles since news of the deaths broke. A Bristol student said “Bristol is quite intense. It’s known for the amount people go out, for the drugs, but it’s also really hard to find a balance between the partying and the work. People get competitive with each other: who can go out the most nights, who’s done the least work, who misses the most lectures, who’s having the best time.”
People get competitive with each other: who can go out the most nights, who’s done the least work, who misses the most lectures, who’s having the best time. Drugs often seem to play a part in triggering mental health problems that may have been bubbling under the surface. Rebecca herself floundered last term after a bad experience with MDMA, which led to a two-month period of terrifying anxiety. “You don’t want to be the one to bring the mood down,” she told me. “You just want to keep going.”
The causes of this apparent spike in student depression and anxiety are by no means clear. Some suggest that, having been pushed and helicoptered by parents and teachers through school, many students feel underprepared for their newfound independence, with only fledgling friendships for support.
Then, of course, there are the rising costs – students are keenly aware of the need to make their £27,000-plus course fees count, scared of failing to live up to expectations and anxious about graduate job prospects.
Josephine Steeghs, a coordinator at Nightline, the nationwide helpline run by students, for students, tells me that so-called “study drugs”, such as Adderall and Modafinil are commonplace. “In some circles, almost expected – in order to get a decent result,” she says.
“I feel like there is no room for mistakes in today’s society and I make a lot,” says Martha, who developed severe OCD and depression while completing her Masters degree at Bristol in 2015. “It’s really a feat to have confidence in yourself.” Not least, when the lives of your peers are playing out in constant, glittering detail on Instagram and Facebook.
Earlier this year, Sir Anthony Seldon, who introduced the concept of wellbeing a decade ago as master of Wellington College, announced the introduction of a positive psychology programme for students and staff at the University of Buckingham, where he is now vice-chancellor, to alleviate what he described as appallingly “needless suffering”.
The job of a good university should be to help students learn how to live a productive and meaningful life rather than just get good degrees. Sir Anthony Seldon-“A lot of universities in Britain, particularly in the past three years, have started doing much more, but the work is fundamentally reactive,” he explained. “It waits until somebody has been to see a therapist, or is missing essays, or the tutor is worried they are not in class or have heard worrying signs. The job of a good university should be to help students learn how to live a productive and meaningful life rather than just get good degrees.”
Though Universities UK believes this is not a job for universities alone – and parents, schools, employers and the NHS all have parts to play – it is clear there is much work to be done, to equip young people with the tools they need to cope with pressure in the first place. And the confidence to seek help when they can no longer do so.
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