Starting university soon? Watch out for your mental health

The start of the academic year is a pressure point for many students

Pressures on new students include finding themselves in a new setting without their old schoolfriends. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Pressures on new students include finding themselves in a new setting without their old schoolfriends. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

As a new academic year looms, many will face it with hope and excitement. For others it may bring anxiety and a scary new world.

Researchers from the University of Manchester found that the month of September is a peak time for youth suicides in England and Wales. The other peak is at the start of the exam season.

Suicide is a complex subject. For instance, about a quarter of young people who take their own lives in England and Wales have experienced a bereavement about year beforehand.

But most young people will have suffered a bereavement, of a greater or lesser significance, by the time they get to university and it is difficult to separate out the role that an earlier bereavement has in a person’s decision to take their own life.

Pressures on new students include finding themselves in a new setting without their old schoolfriends.

It’s easy, from the outside, to see university as a place of fun and frolics with lots of readily-available company and things to do. For some that’s how it works out but others are not so fortunate. The vast majority of people in this latter group work their way through the loneliness, but for the few it can add to the pressures that lead them to tragedy.

To be thrown into “freedom” without preparation cannot work for everyone

According to Stephen Habgood, chairman of Papyrus, a UK suicide-prevention charity, quoted in the Guardian, the pressure to succeed is an additional pressure at the start of the academic year.

I would add to this that, to students chafing at the restrictions of secondary school, the freedom to choose how, when and where to study must look highly attractive. But to be thrown into that “freedom” without preparation cannot work for everyone.

Pressure

Financial pressures were also cited by Habgood as sources of extreme pressure on students. In Ireland, sky-high rents are a source of pressure on many students and their families. Suicide, as well as inflicting a lifelong wound on family and friends, is the tip of an iceberg of distress – distress that also hurts those who, thankfully, don’t go on to take their own lives.

Habgood called for the reinstatement of counselling services (which had been cut) for distressed students in the UK. I have not seen figures on cutbacks, if any, in counselling services at third-level in Ireland. But a university has the same population as a town, so the need for properly funded counselling services is obvious. The work done by students’ unions on mental health is also deserving of a lot of support.

We need to support efforts to alleviate mental health problems in people entering university

Because suicide has complex causes, the best efforts of universities, students’ unions and families will sometimes fail.

Even in the knowledge that this may happen, we still need to support efforts to alleviate mental health problems in people entering university.  They are suffering and the alleviation of suffering should be a primary aim of mental health efforts.

Of course it has to be recognised that starting the interventions at university can be too late. People whose emotional distress went untreated because of cuts to counselling services at second level may have survived to the end of secondary school – but they may hit a wall of distress when they enter the next stage of their lives.

Chester Bennington, the Linkin Park singer who recently took his own life, had suffered emotional distress for many years beforehand in relation to drugs, alcohol and childhood abuse.

This underscores the point: the help that ultimately may save people’s lives sometimes has to be given years previously. That’s why we need more mental health services for children and young people. That’s why cuts to second-level counselling services (delivered by guidance counsellors) were so irresponsible.

If you’re facing into the start of university life and worried about it, don’t be afraid to talk to relatives or friends, or to a counsellor. Find out what services are organised by the college itself or by the students’ union. And get into the habit of reading great mental health websites like spunout.ie and alustforlife.com

  • Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@yahoo.com) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.@PadraigOMorain 
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