Article for the Independent 23/09/2016
Despite the romantic image we often have of student life, for most people, university is not a healthy place to be either mentally or physically. It is not a popular thing to say, but it appears to be true and it deserves to be said because, otherwise, we fly into student life with absurdly high expectations of having ‘the best years of your life’.
I would even say the belief your student years are ‘the best’ is one of the most dangerous lies around. It leads students into this train of thought: ‘I’m young and I’m at university, so I must be having a good time at all times, otherwise, there’s something wrong with me. And I can’t admit when I am not having a good time because it’s unnatural’.
Obviously this is unhelpful: it turns the student experience into a schizophrenic one in which we constantly try to put on the image of enjoying ourselves while desperately suppressing all negative feelings. Because we’re told we should be enjoying ourselves all the time, life becomes a frantic effort to stay afloat.
Now this is dangerous at the best of times, because young people expect not to experience anything bad at all and, when they do, they ignore it. But at this particular juncture in history, it’s worse than usual.
The fact is that we are in the middle of a mental health crisis. The stats for students, frankly, are not good. The NUS reported that, in the year from March 2015, 78 per cent of students experienced a mental health problem, while a third experienced suicidal thoughts. Shockingly, 58 per cent did not seek help.
I do not have to say much to make you understand the seriousness of what is happening. Mind reports how one in four of us will be experiencing a problem at any one time; anxiety, depression, anorexia, OCD, and other illnesses appear to be on the rise and, as such, complacency is not something we can afford to have.
It’s possible that students are particularly susceptible to mental illness because of the environment. When, suddenly, we are surrounded by parties, nightclubs, drugs, and alcohol, we feel as if we must indulge in all these things as much as we can and attempt to look happy all the time. Social media starts being used to create images that hide insecurities. Our attitude to sex changes because we are made to feel as if we should be having it all the time, which makes us more frustrated, and we value it even less as an intimate connection.
But at the same time as being told we ought to be indulging in extreme, individualist hedonism at all times, we are also told we need to be highly-organised and career-driven because, after all, we’re in tens of thousands of pounds of debt. The result is a life of frantic insecurity, and, in the age of anxiety in which we live, mental illness gets its greatest chance to attack us yet.
The message here is very simple: do not be scared if mental illness happens to you. Although it doesn’t feel like it, it’s not a reflection on you personally, but on your life and times.
At the end of my first year, I was hit by anxiety and depression so hard that I quite simply did not know what was happening. It was like waking up to find yourself alone in the middle of the ocean. As fast as I could, I did everything possible to alleviate the pain, learning to meditate, learning about Buddhism and spirituality, talking to psychologists, friends and family, and the result is that I have become a much more controlled, happy person. But it took a long time.
The truth is that I wasn’t ready for it. Don’t be like me. Get ready: acknowledge that we are living in a mental health crisis, do your research, talk to people, meditate, exercise, whatever – just make sure you feel in control. And if something does happen, or if things do get worse, talk to people. So many people suffer in silence because they don’t understand what’s happening, but don’t you dare be one of those people. Get up and find a way to deal with it.
I hate to pull the veil from your eyes, but university is not a healthy place to be right now. Acknowledging that FOMO is a real evil, that the future is uncertain, that you might be anxiously socialising, that you are likely to eat badly, not exercise and drink too much, that drugs can destroy your mental and physical health – all these are things that go some way to understanding the reality.
University can be lots of fun, but only if we take it moment by moment. Be realistic. You can’t be everywhere at once, living in a kind of permanent ecstasy while simultaneously being fully prepared for a career. And neither can we expect to go through life without encountering mental illness in either ourselves or our loved ones.
So don’t be frightened if bad things happen to you at university. We live in a toxic age for negative emotions, and the only way we can begin to help is if we all understand what is happening.