As the title of this post suggests, today is University Mental Health Day. One of the aims of the campaign is to
Raise awareness of the challenges that students face at university and what that means for their mental health.
While it is obviously important for people to talk about mental health issues in general, I believe it is especially true in the UK. Here, our various cultures are damnably squirmish when it comes to sharing emotions. I actually believe that attitudes are changing – thanks to individuals openly (and bravely) expressing themselves, and the tireless campaigning of charities in support and awareness. Even the BBC has lent their broadcasting talents to it. But where I would like to see more people speak up is from the student side.
Yet I know why there is reluctance, hesitation. I already mentioned the social burden that all groups share, namely the emotional torture of the British stiff upper lip. But if you are a student there is a lot of additional pressure when it comes to mental health.
I have the dubious honour of having gone to university twice. First straight from school in my teens, and then again in my mid-twenties. My first attempt at uni life was shambolic, to say the least, and I failed out before graduating. The second is coming to a close and I have been more or less the model student. So I would like to tell you what my experiences have been like in both situations, what pressures and experiences can lead to mental health problems, and where I have seen or experienced reluctance to speak out.
I don’t even know why I’m here
My older brother suddenly died when I was 15 years old. It took a whole year before the permanency of his absence became a reality to me. From then until my early twenties, this event dominated almost everything. A feeling that most people inevitably experience after losing a loved one is anger. From what I can tell it usually passes quickly. But I stayed angry for years, was a distressed victim, and it distracted me constantly.
When I started meeting new people by going to art college, and then to university away from home, I really didn’t know how to cope with the emotions at all. When it came to the academic side of my degree in animation it was confusing. I didn’t turn up to half the lectures. The essays confounded me. The practical aspect was nearly just as bad – I would go to the studio but mostly spend my time annoying the other students. Looking back on this aspect I am so thankful for the maturity they showed when interacting with me, as I would have been easily led further astray.
Why was it this way? Mainly, I think, because I didn’t know why I was there.
While I don’t have any data to back this up, I will go so far to say that anecdotally this is a common experience for school leavers. You finish your A Levels, or Highers, and go to university. Once you’re there it is confusing, living away from home, mixed up with other teens. If classes are either too hard or too easy (or just not to your interest) then you will start to ask how you ended up there. Chances are you won’t know, because either your parents or a school guidance officer (or whoever) shuttled you into a course they assumed you would like or be good at.
So, what’s it like to feel lost in a system where the university constantly reinforces a super duper friendly positive atmosphere for special people façade? How does one cope with a pre-existing mental health condition and lack of social and basic living skills, if they are too afraid to admit they need help?
It made me feel even more angry than ever and I despaired often. I felt that because I was at uni it would be ok to numb myself with alcohol often, and in large amounts. Funnily enough my housemates AND coursemates disapproved of my alcohol abuse – scuppering the social acceptability I expected at the time. My parents didn’t know the full extent of my lows simply because I was too ashamed to tell them about it. And all the time I knew that student loan debt was piling up, adding to my anxiety about the future.
Other events piled into the sense of confusion. Even the first year away from home was a mess. A flatmate of mine in halls fell in love with me – I had to rebuff unwanted romantic advances, mentally and physically, and simultaneously confide in him because I felt so alone. (Let me warn anyone else of doing the same.) My best friend studied in the same city but was so underdeveloped and emotionally constipated himself, that we simply ended up fighting and not sharing positivity with one another – he left at the end of the academic year.
All these events left me emotionally disoriented and disappointed – in myself. I didn’t take advantage of the counselling services like I should have (attending sessions only twice in two years) and pushed away so many good people in the process, including my family. I was too young and didn’t know how to work or look after myself. Luckily, I started dating my now wife just before leaving university, and felt a renewed sense of direction in working as a chef. But if I didn’t have that then things would have gone very badly indeed. As my step father recently said, “Your mum and I used to be so worried, we wondered if you would ever make anything of yourself at all.”
I don’t even know why I bother
The story now is the flipside. I know why I came back to university in my mid-early twenties (shifting from animation and starting over in biological sciences). My wife encouraged me to do it, after the chefing proved a dead end. I read a Richard Dawkins book that finally showed me the positive side to my brother’s life and I wanted more! More of this biology stuff! But now, I’m on the final stretch thinking ‘what’s the point?’ I have felt so depressed over the past months that it has been hard to see beyond the next week, let alone graduation.
To get into a degree in biological sciences I had to do a one-year Access to University course. I’m not sure if these exist outwith Scotland. We had to do high school biology and chemistry and then certain universities would take us on if our grades were acceptable. That year, plus my first and second year at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, were fantastic. I worked so hard and loved the material. I was stunned by how complex life is and the ingenuity of scientific experimentation and application. This was when I really got interested in plants for their beauty and utility.
But the euphoria was dispelled in third year. Up until this point – and just to remind you that since returning to uni this was my fourth year away from full time work – I had been a golden boy. Working hard all the time, doing extracurricular biology, Straight A grades, on good terms with lecturers. I had been lulled into an idea that the university cared about me. But that was far from the truth and should have been apparent if I hadn’t become so self-congratulatory.
Then I got a B grade and it changed my entire outlook.
Let me make it absolutely clear. It was disappointing. But it was deserved. I submitted a tangled, jargon-laden literature review that was not up to my usual standard. I was upset, but not because of the grade relative to my normal attainment. I was upset because when the marking distribution was made available it was quite clear that certain academics graded consistently high, while others did the opposite. I went to the head of my school to flag this up and they not only admitted it was a problem – “20% on average difference? Oh yeah, at least” – but then threw the problem back in my lap – “What do you want me to do about it?”
I then had to suffer through endless lectures and exams on topics that weren’t of particular interest to me, all while knowing the marking discrepancy was a real thing, and essentially sanctioned by the university.
So why bother?
I started looking back on courses that I took, for example Management in a Global Context. This unit was offered by a School outwith my own and I scraped an A grade, and worked harder than in almost any of my biology courses to get it. Meanwhile my biology peers took courses that were either repeats, essentially of previous courses they had taken, or were from easy graders within our school. From my perspective it started to look like a rotten deal. In the context of my paid work from outwith university I realise this scenario is normal. But having been a student (again) for so long it was very hard to cope with.
It leads into my final year and similar thoughts. My good friend James and I are the number one and two academic performers in our biology year group. He has had many well-deserved funded placements and awards. I am genuinely happy for him in his successes, especially as like me he had a previous attempt at university and has had his own struggles to contend with.
But how would you feel if your mate got everything that they wanted while you got next to nothing? Funding for placements? Awards of academic achievement (and monetary prizes for the same)? A prestigious PhD position at first attempt?
This is where I think people from outside the university sphere can really connect with and understand the kind of dark thoughts this could lead to in students.
Graduating means either attempting to get a job, or inching into postgraduate studies. Postgrad programmes are competitive. In the case of PhDs they are essentially jobs – research skills are learned and a project/s are carried out to professional level. The applications and interviews reflect this, with you as an applicant being heavily scrutinised and having to justify every word or intention. I’m not saying that is wrong, but the point is that students are vulnerable.
I’m lucky because of my marriage, family (who I now include), and supportive friends. I’m also lucky because I’m a white male and perceived as middle class so there’s no social inequity stacked against me in that regard. I’m grateful for the former and always willing to check my privilege when it comes to the latter.
But after years of academics telling me I’m PhD material, after doing two summer research projects, all the good grades and extracurricular work, I got complacent in the reality of my persona and my position in the world. It goes back to my brothers death. The reality is that no one owes you anything, despite what a wonderful person you are or how hard you work. If you don’t know this – or like me you forgot it – then the rejections can be a shock to the system.
I have questioned whether or not to carry on to postgraduate studies, if I am good enough, what I did wrong in interviews or applications – feedback is the exception, not the norm, after all. I reverted to a vulnerable state and once again the university did nothing. Except this time I made it clear to my tutors and research supervisors just how unhappy I am. None of them are trained to deal with this level of deflatedness – and from stories passed around by other students neither are the other academics in our School.
There is a practical aspect to all of this. At my university the final year marks are what give us the degree classification. They don’t trust students to be mature enough by their third year of studies to knuckle down. So like me, while you write your own research proposals or apply to top notch PhDs, you need to be maintaining the A grades. Honestly it is very difficult. All of this stuff takes a long time, and a lot of mental energy. There is only so much that can be achieved to a high quality in the time given.
Finally, to return to student vulnerability in the context of graduation. I mentioned the façade of positivity that is draped over universities. I’m sure everyone can recognise the same oppressive expectation from their social media feeds? Going to interviews, submitting CVs and covering letters, these all suffer from the same problem. Incessant positivity seems to be expected from undergraduates. After all, you’ve had this amazing opportunity to learn worry-free for three to four years! So why would undergrads speak out about mental health issues suffered in the university environment? It is easy to see how concerns about sounding negative, and even weak, would stop those who have yet to even get a foot on the career ladder from expressing themselves.
Lessons learned and moving forward
I will graduate with a minimum 2:1, though hopefully a first class degree. I have at least one more interview for an exciting postgraduate course. The future is… well, exactly that. It is the future, I’ve got no idea what it will bring. If I continue to follow my passions and work hard then my way will be lit up piece by piece. There is no rush.
I have re-learned a lot this year about mental health and pitfalls to avoid in the future. There are parallels between my two time periods at university. For one thing, you really cannot trust a large institution to look out for you.
My mental welfare is the concern of me and my loved ones only. Luck plays a big part in opportunity. If I am upset then I must speak out instead of wait for others to ask.
And moving forward – I will soon be free of the pressures of the undergraduate bubble!
Hat tip to Sonja Dunbar (@PlantSciSonja) and Katharine Hubbard (@KEHplantsci) from twitter for altering me to University Mental Health Day 2016.