University blues

Life at university is meant to be a tremendous experience, but many young adults find it hard to settle in and become plagued by anxiety and depression. Celia Dodd hears what is being done to help them
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The Independent Online

University is supposed to be the best time of your life. And for some students it is, right from the first cheesy disco of freshers' week. But stress and unhappiness among students is on the increase, according to a survey from the Association of University and College Counselling.

In most cases this doesn't last, but for a minority it can develop into mental health problems that may be harder to resolve. The fact that the Royal College of Psychiatrists' has a report on student mental health due out soon, is a further indication of the level of concern in universities and beyond.

Matt Tong, a music technology student at Thames Valley University who originally took a degree in philosophy and sociology at East Anglia, voices an increasingly common sense of disillusion. "Before I went, I was really looking forward to meeting loads of amazing, fascinating people, but it wasn't like that at all. I just felt really out of my depth. I didn't really make friends on my course because I felt intimidated - I saw them all as intellectual heavyweights, although in retrospect they were probably just more confident.

"And I wasn't ready for the lack of privacy in halls, which made me feel slightly paranoid. I began to question what I was doing there, and even though I changed course in the second term I was still unhappy for the whole of the first year. But eventually things just clicked."

Students today have good reason to be more stressed than previous generations. Financial and academic pressures, plus career uncertainties, have added hugely to the adjustment of leaving friends and family and coping with a life which has few reassuring routines to follow.

Nigel Humphrys, the head of Leeds University's Counselling Service, says: "Being a student now is quite different from 20 years ago. Today universities tend to be much larger and less personal. It's very rare for students to go through their degree with the same 20 or 30 people: instead they take different modules with large numbers of different students, so it's hard for them to build up support networks. And they don't just have finals now; they have exams twice a year, so the pressure is on from the moment they start until the moment they finish."

Yet vital safety nets traditionally offered by universities often fail to keep pace with the growing pressure on students. Counselling services are strapped for cash, while in many institutions personal tutors - who are perfectly placed to nip problems in the bud and prevent unhappiness developing into something more serious - are thin on the ground. This is a pity, given the high correlation between good pastoral support systems and a low drop-out rate.

Dr Terri Apter, the senior tutor in social psychology at Newnham College, Cambridge, believes that the decline in support stems from the assumption that at 18 - the marker for legal adulthood - students no longer need adult support. "Universities are no longer in loco parentis. They still have a 'duty of care', but it's very difficult to know what that means in a context in which it's inappropriate to give students parental-like care, such as making sure they don't drink too much and adhere to certain standards of sexual behaviour. Release of these controls is good, but it also involves lowering the amount of support."

Many tutors, like Dr Apter, want to be supportive but are constrained further by the Data Protection Act, which prevents them contacting parents about students even if there is reason to worry. She says: "Universities are very concerned about this. It means that we can't liaise with the parents except in a very general way - for instance a parent can point out what they're worried about, and I can use the support structures in the college to look out for that particular student."

Rachael Tooth, 25, who temporarily abandoned her degree in journalism at Cardiff University because of mental health problems in her third year, believes that the lack of adult support made her own situation worse. She says: "I absolutely loved the course. But part of the problem was my limited contact time with tutors: I only saw my personal tutor once a term. When I got ill my marks dropped dramatically, but nobody noticed. Because I'd changed modules I had new tutors who just assumed I was a student who failed, and my old tutors assumed I was still achieving high marks."

Although Rachael finally sought counselling, she initially relied on friends, who for many students are the first and last bastion of support. Brunel University, in west London, which recognises the importance of friends, plans to introduce information sessions about mental illness for new students from September. Its vice-chancellor, Professor Steven Schwartz, says: "The people who are most likely to pick up on problems, and to have most influence, are peers. So students need to know all the possible sources of help - not just counselling, but alternatives such as student groups, union reps, halls of residence groups and the university clergy."

But Terri Apter insists that it's also up to parents to continue to offer emotional support to their student offspring, no matter what conventional wisdom says about 18-year-olds being totally independent. "Young people who have some kind of family support do better in young adulthood. If parents feel that they shouldn't be helping them, because they fear it will undermine their independence, then students really are left alone and they have a much tougher time."

'I used to think how nice it would be just to sleep for one night'

Fiona Cook, 23, graduated from Bristol University with a law degree last summer. During her first year she was successfully treated for anxiety and insomnia. As vice-president of the students' union, she runs welfare campaigns on mental health, and helps run a listening service for students.

"In the first few weeks I was carried away with the emotional rush and just enjoying myself. Everyone's in the same position ­ going out all the time and drinking a lot and not getting enough sleep. But once we settled down into our courses and my friends stopped going out every night, I found I couldn't sleep and I started having these funny anxiety feelings all the time, particularly in lectures and tutorials.

"It was partly to do with having such a good time, but also with the academic pressure, which I partly put on myself. I'd come from a local comprehensive where I was in the top few per cent, whereas at university ­ especially a university like Bristol ­ you're surrounded by high flyers and it's a lot of pressure. The first question everyone asks is, what A-levels did you get? I'd only done three and got an A and two Bs whereas a lot of my contemporaries got five As. I began doubting myself and thinking, what am I doing here? I can't handle this, I'm different to them, I'm going to come out with worse marks. At first you don't realise that most people come out with roughly the same degree, irrespective of their academic background.

"It got to the stage where I couldn't sleep unless I'd had a lot to drink and even then I'd have bad dreams or wake up in the night. I was run down and really worried about not sleeping; I used to think how nice it would be just to sleep for one night. So before the end of term I went to the student health service to ask for beta-blockers. I had exams after Christmas and I was scared of having panic attacks. I didn't go to a counsellor because there's still a stigma attached ­ and in any case I saw it as a medical problem.

"After talking to me for a long time, the doctor said I had panic disorder and explained all the options. It was such a great weight off my mind. Since then I've been on the anti-depressant drug Seroxat, which suits me really well. It broke the cycle ­ I was able to relax and sleep which made me much more positive about everything. I knew what it was like to be normal again.

"Looking back, perhaps I should have been a bit more concerned about going to university. It is a big transition, leaving a supportive network of friends and family, but I was just really excited about it. I wouldn't say university caused my problems but it's probably a prime time for latent problems to develop."