University Life: Delicious Freedom, or a Culture of Anxiety?
The fall 2015 term saw record numbers of students beginning university, and many are living away from home for the first time. Though this is undoubtedly an exciting step it is also a big emotional leap, and growing numbers of students are struggling to cope with their new life on campus. As a result there have been significant rises in the demand for counselling, and some observers are questioning whether universities are in fact providing adequate support for students with mental and emotional health issues.
According to Dr. Ruth Caleb, the chair of Universities UK’s mental well-being working group, on-campus counselling services are facing an annual rise in demand of about 10%. Moreover a report from the Higher Education Council for England, published just before the new term (and using anonymised data), has indicated an even more dramatic increase in the demand for counselling, citing one university that had an annual increase of more than 50%. Overall the demand rose from about 8,000 to 18,000 in the four years to 2012-13.
The vice chancellor of Buckingham University, Sir Anthony Seldon, has acknowledged that this is a “massive problem” and says the universities have been negligent in accepting responsibility. Universities, he says, aren’t always honest about admitting the extent of the problem, and they need to start taking their responsibilities to students far more seriously.
A culture of anxiety and depression
Gone are the days when new uni students’ main problems were transitory homesickness or relationship woes. The Higher Education Council study cited above indicates that today’s students want help with more serious problems such as anxiety, depression or low mood. Even more worrying, increasing numbers of students are at high risk of self-harm, including suicide.
The problems have grown worse because students today feel they are under enormous pressure, according to the University of Reading’s head of well being, Alicia Pena Bizama. It isn’t just academic pressure but also social pressure of an unprecedented scale and intensity.
The omnipresence of social media has fueled a culture of constant comparison, with the inevitable sense of inadequacy. Students often feel that they always have to be “on”, to compete with their peers in showcasing a life of endless fun and achievement. Granted, social media can also be a constructive force in university student life, encouraging healthy, empowering behaviour. But all too often it’s a forum for boasting and showing off as well as for shaming and bullying, only increasing the stress levels of those who feel they will never measure up.
As well, many students face problems on the home front. There’s an unfortunate pattern of parents splitting up when their child goes to university, and sometimes selling the family home – all of which can leave students feeling alone and unsupported.
Apart from the shock of living away from home for the first time, and the amplified social and academic pressures, many university students are beset by money worries. Increases in tuition fees have added to the stress level, and this stress is only exacerbated by the uncertainty of the job market. Will all of that money spent on learning pay off? Is a university education really worth the possibility of being saddled with student loan debt for years?
Universities UK’s Dr. Caleb, who is also head of counselling at Brunel University, asserts that there has been “a cultural change in being a student.” Rather than a culture of fun and learning, it has become, for all too many students, a culture of anxiety.
Traditionally universities have handled such problems by not really handling them, instead fostering a “sink or swim” environment. And too many students have ended up suffering in silence. However, the increase in use of counselling services reflects a greater willingness on the part of students to ask for help, and universities are also waking up to the seriousness of the problem. These are steps in the right direction.
For some students, the changes in UK university culture can’t come quickly enough. But many British university students have taken matter into their own hands and are finding creative ways to reduce some of the financial pressures. They’ve made the choice to attend university in countries where tuition is considerably less costly than in the UK, or even free.
Some have even taken the unusual route of studying in the UK and living in another country where rents are cheaper. If you can’t find affordable housing in Britain, and living with Mum and Dad whilst pursuing your degree isn’t feasible or desirable, studying here and living abroad can be an ideal setup – provided you can make suitable commuting and accommodation arrangements.
The picture for university students isn’t completely bleak by any means. Although going to university is a big step and will probably always be stressful, the universities are finding better ways to help students cope with the stresses, and to guide them into becoming happier and more functional people once they get out into the “real world”. And many of the students are finding their own paths to happiness and fulfillment by thinking a little bit outside of the norm.