by Sarah Wolpers

“Do you ever feel so paper thin, like a house of cards, one blow from caving in?” This quote from Katy Perry’s song “Firework” encapsulates the feeling of many university students who are struggling with their mental health. One quarter of students report to have a mental problem, with their numbers steadily increasing. But why do students have those problems? And is there any help available for them?

If you ask people on the street to describe their study time, most would answer that it was the best time of their life. Nevertheless, the number of students with mental problems is increasing. Especially female students are more likely to say that they are having such difficulties. But what does “stress” mean on campus?

First of all, it is important to mention that everybody experiences stress in a different way. Yet in general, there are three dimensions which can promote a mental health problem. First, an extensive workload of studies and exams.

The Bologna Process increased and most notably condensed the content of degree programmes. Some students cannot handle this. Secondly, “social perfectionism”. Many students feel under pressure to be an A+ student, to have the right clothes and excel in their leisure time activities.

Thirdly, the combination between the fear of failure and high tuition fees, as well as increasing living costs. A recent study shows, that an undisputed negative relationship (correlation) between debt and mental health exists. Great Britain is thus experiencing an ongoing debate about the link between the recent increase in tuition fees and mental health problems, after an alarmingly high number of students committed suicide in the last couple of years.

Balancing workload and a social life outside of campus means that most students suffer from some combination of stress and exhaustion. Seven out of ten say that work from university is one of their main sources of stress. Especially First-in-Family students are struggling to handle the stress. Another reason is the fear of not finding a job after university.

Furthermore, university can be a highly isolating environment. Freshman year can for instance prove to be daunting when studying far away from home and making one’s first steps into higher education, as this leads to an increasing level of stress. Furthermore, highly ambitious persons particularly feel socially isolated.

All these factors can promote a student’s mental health problem. Depression and anxiety are the most commonly reported mental health issues.

How does a depression develop? Whilst every patient displays different symptoms, the most commonly known ones are a lowering of mood and poor concentration capabilities – this in turn gives rise to failing grades, eventually resulting in dropping out of one’s study programme. Depressed people likewise tend to lose their interest in former hobbies.

One third of students suffering from depression said that they faced suicidal thoughts. Eating disorders, particularly among female students, and drug additions, especially pronounced among male students, are frequent problems associated with depression.

Over the last few years, mental health became a more recognised issue on campus. Nevertheless, it is still a taboo topic for public discussions and that is why many students are afraid to speak about their mental health problem. Recently however, students started campaigning to raise awareness and stamp out the stigma surrounding mental health in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. 2 March was thus marked as the University Mental Health Day at over 700 British Universities.

In these countries, it became common to instate mental health services on campus, offering ongoing individual counseling services, screening, and evaluation. Such services already exist in Germany as well. This offer is not intended to administer a specific treatment for the student – instead, professional staff talk with the students about their self-confidence, current life satisfaction, as well as discuss the students’ future and dreams.

Most students are aware of this on-campus service. Nevertheless, these offices are often overburdened and understaffed. Because of that, the establishing of a 24-hour crisis hotline would support and expand this offer for students looking for help. In addition, not many students want to acknowledge or accept that they are suffering from mental problems. Hence it is all the more important to offer mental health training for students, especially in peer-run groups.

The training of university staff is of the utmost importance to increase their understanding of mental health issues as well.

Another opportunity offered is dog-therapy. In Canada, it became quite popular over the last years. British university have likewise just started offering dog-visits on campus. Dog-therapy helps students with anxiety and depression. Dogs give uncomplicated love and can increase levels of oxytocin in humans, a hormone that reduce anxiety. People become less frightened and more secure when they pet dogs. Furthermore, it is a low-cost therapy, if the dogs visit the university at least twice a term.
Nevertheless, to provide these mental health services, it is necessary that every university has a mental health policy, which imbedded the offered possibilities. The University of Oxford is only one example, which has such a policy.

Furthermore, a good nutrition and physical fitness go hand in glove with mental well-being. Especially yoga practice has a positive effect on one’s mental health and helps students to relax and find inner peace. In addition, students have to learn to handle their own failure. We can all fail, it is human.

Nevertheless, all these services can only be effective if the student is willing to seek help and develop a resiliency. That means an interpersonal possibility to handle stress and to influence one’s own emotions in a positive way.

Students experiencing a mental health issue are more likely to receive lower marks, drop out of college or find themselves unemployed than their peers who do not have a mental health challenges. Hence it is urgent to offer some on-campus services to support students with mental health problems and create an environment, which offers students communication about their difficulties without fear. Universities should be a place where students feel supported, whether it be in their educational or personal development.

25 May 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 68