10 third-level students have their say about mental health
‘Everyone I knew had kept going on about how college would be the greatest years of my life’
On Tuesday, a report published by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) – and funded by the HSE – claimed that one third of students are experiencing “extremely severe levels of anxiety”.
The National Report on Student Mental Health in Third Level Education surveyed students on their experiences with mental health and mental health services.
The Irish Times asked readers for their own experiences of personal and emotional difficulties in college, and their opinions on the USI report – which noted that one-fifth of students claimed they did not have someone to talk to about their mental health difficulties.
Here are 10 of the (anonymous) submissions.
1) ‘Thanks’ to the bus driver
“I came to UCD in 2014 from a small school, and didn’t know anyone in my course. I was always quiet, but not antisocial. However, after starting UCD, I became increasingly isolated, lonely, and depressed. It seemed my whole course, bar me, had brought some form of peer group with them, and I stopped seeing the value in trying to make friends as I felt there was no point when everyone already had friends. As the years went on, I was so isolated that often the only words I would speak between leaving for college and getting home were my ‘thanks’ to the bus driver.
“I constantly thought about dropping out, and even ending my life. Everyone I knew had kept going on about how college would be the greatest years of my life, and how they’d enjoyed it so much. I felt like a total failure, and I couldn’t focus on my work, and even though I graduated with good grades I know I could’ve done better. The experience rattled me so badly that I have no desire to use my degree, or even discuss it, as it brings too many dark thoughts back. Until this study came out I never knew so many students felt like me during college as the prevailing myth is that college is the best time of your life.
“Actively fostering meaningful peer mentorship programmes and addressing far too large class sizes would be useful first steps for college authorities in addressing the feelings of isolation and loneliness that contribute to negative mental health issues in students, in my opinion.”
2) Panic attacks
“I started going to counselling in my first year of college and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I was told that it was likely I’d been depressed for years. I started on medication in second year when I began having panic attacks so frequently I found it hard to go up stairs or go to class. I came off them after a breakdown. I continued with counselling and started seeing an occupational therapist. Two years after that breakdown I no longer consider myself depressed and I have a diagnosis of autism that explains a lot of my difficulties. Counselling, and especially occupational therapy, saved my life. I start back in college in September in a new course.”
3) Drinking events
“I feel that, while I exhibited symptoms of anxiety and depression in secondary school, my mental health plummeted when I began my first year of college. I was entirely unprepared for moving away, living with other people, cooking for myself, etc, but my main issues revolved around alcohol. In my student accommodation, almost every social event involved alcohol and I think that this led to a toxic atmosphere. Myself and other women were sexually assaulted both at events and while completely sober. I was subsequently followed and threatened by a group of male students, which led to me isolating myself and not going to lectures. I began to feel that alcohol was the only way to escape my thoughts and feelings and feel free.
I think that student accommodation needs to do more for residents’ mental health, and especially accommodation directly linked to the college. The ‘committee’ at my accommodation seemed to have the sole task of organising drinking events, but where was the emotional support? The ‘welfare officer’ seemed to just be the person to go to if you needed a condom, but where was the information on consent? I think that one of the reasons why students feel that they can’t access support is because they don’t feel they deserve it. It’s a privilege to be in college, to be staying in student accommodation, etc, and so the mentality is, ‘I should be happy, I have all these things that others don’t’. I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self that I was entitled to my feelings, to seek help, and to stand up for myself.”
4) Kinder to myself
“When I was a student in the mid-2000s, I went through a period where I felt very down and as though I couldn’t cope. I went to the college GP who told me that I probably needed to be put on antidepressants, but that she would send me to the college counselling service first to see if that helped. I was very sceptical about counselling and doubted that it would do any good. I remember glancing up at a shelf with books by Freud as I sat down with the counsellor and thinking that this would be a waste of time.
“But after listening to me talk for a while, the counsellor said one simple thing to me that unlocked something in my head and pushed me through – she said that no one was putting all this pressure on me except for myself. I realised that I needed to be much kinder to myself for the good of my own mental health. I’ve carried that lesson through my life since then. I shudder to think now what might have happened to me if the counselling service hadn’t been available and I’d been put straight on medication instead. Medication can be very helpful or even necessary in some cases, but it isn’t always the answer.”
5) Necessary evil
“I lasted eight weeks in university in Dublin on my first attempt in 2016 before I had to defer my place for a year. Within the first two weeks I had become crippled by feelings of terror and isolation. As an only child, many older relatives had attempted to prepare me for university by telling me how fantastic the years were, partying with their huge groups of friends and bluffing their way through exams, before stumbling upon the perfect job. Not the case today.
“The pressure on students nowadays to perform academically in this country is ludicrous. Universities are being flooded and trades rejected as a result of our Celtic Tiger hangover (some might call it snobbery, others might put it down to the growth of materialism). A basic degree is no longer sufficient for many employers and a 2:1 is now basically the new pass mark. After 12 months of self-sourced therapy and support (which was not provided for or even offered by the university who were made fully aware of the situation) I went back for a second go. I now achieve first class honours but still spend weeks of sleepless nights in the build up to each set of exams, despite the fact that I have been prescribed sleeping medication in an attempt to relieve the stress.
“I can only imagine how awful it must be for slightly weaker students who struggle to pass exams. I can’t wait for my college days to be behind me. In my eyes, this is a process which, despite what they tell us, still boils down to endless hours of wrote learning. The amount of time students spend socialising and partying is a fraction of what it was because so much more time is now spent chasing the perfect grade. For me, university in Ireland is in no way a fulfilling or enhancing experience and is simply a necessary evil. The Leaving Cert is only the beginning of the journey. Is this really the best that we can do for our young people? How has it been allowed come to this.”
6) Feelings of guilt
“For me, college life in Ireland is so romanticised that starting first year came as a complete shock. Going from the rigid structure of secondary school, I was completely thrown in the deep end and didn’t know how to go about anything. There is this unspoken culture of ‘just figure it out on your own’ among academics in their attitude to students - a PhD candidate who works as a teaching assistant for my course even told me that she was specifically instructed not to give additional help to any student who asked for it. Irish teenagers are not taught how to think independently, how to decide what is important to them (academics, extra curricular, financial independence from working a job) and prioritise this by the time they reach college. Of course, the current housing crisis means that many students don’t even have the luxury of picking one over the other. It feels as though we have to excel at everything and this results in feelings of guilt, despair and doing most things poorly instead of a few things well.”
7) Uncomfortable talking
“I did a social science degree in UCD and graduated last year. I moved to Dublin from Mayo, and I found first year very lonely at times. My girlfriend and I split up just as we started college, so the person I normally talked to about my problems was gone. I didn’t make any friends on my course until after Christmas. I lived with a friend from home who tried to help, but I could tell he was really uncomfortable talking about mental health, so I generally didn’t bother him. I never sought help from mental health services of any sort.
“Funnily enough, my grades that semester were the best of any during my degree, because I basically spent all my time studying as I’d no social life. I think the research cited is accurate, although I don’t think more funding for counselling or mental health campaigns is the answer as everyone always seems to think. I think the Irish student mental health epidemic has deeper roots, as there’s similar epidemics in America and elsewhere (Johnathan Haidt’s work on this makes sense to me). Personally, I got through this tough period mainly by taking up running. I went running every evening and it never failed to pick up my mood.”
8) Abusing alcohol
“I attended the then DIT (now TU Dublin) and found third-level very challenging with my anxiety becoming increasingly difficult to manage. I made an appointment to see the college counsellor, but they did not turn up for my appointment. I tried to make another appointment but kept getting voicemail. I didn’t try again. I began to abuse alcohol and struggled to finish my degree. After graduating, I did seek a therapist, this time in a private capacity which helped me turn my life around. Hopefully, support services are better for students now.”
9) I am optimistic
“I remember on my first day at university, I locked myself in a toilet cubicle and cried. I felt so alone, frightened and like my every move was magnified so that everyone around me was able to see how awkward I was. I didn’t make friends until second year, while I was on work placement. By then I had suffered the loss of a family member and was severely depressed. I repeated exams and modules over and over again but couldn’t pass them.
“All the friends I had made had moved forward while I repeated. I sat alone in the lectures I did manage to attend. Eventually, I dropped out. I still haven’t told my parents, who think I graduated. I was too ashamed and felt guilty that I had wasted the money they invested in my education. I’m now hoping to return to finish my course in the next year but as a mature, independent student, I will have to find a way to finance it myself. I am scared that I will relapse into depression but I am hoping that I am strong enough to fight it this time. I have been on medication for six years and am slowly weaning myself off it. It has been a struggle but I am trying to learn how to open up and talk to people. I have the support of my partner now. I am optimistic.”
10) Shambles of a health system
“Honestly, I’m surprised the figure (38 per cent reporting they are experiencing extremely severe levels of anxiety) is not higher. I had mental health difficulties during my undergrad degree and was very lucky that the university had a (free) health unit where I could go for help. I attended counselling, but the only thing on offer was talk therapy, which was ultimately not very helpful.
“In my opinion, it’s not necessarily the institutions responsibility to provide services, and maybe the money would be better spent on improving facilities etc, but this means that the HSE or some other government agencies need to pick up the slack. I investigated the possibility of going to a psychiatrist privately for something like CBT or similar, but at a minimum of €100, that is just not an option and even to go to the GP was out of my budget. I know that there are charities out there helping people too, but it ultimately comes back to the shambles of a health system we have in Ireland.
“I’m in a PhD programme now in a different university and it’s so tough, I’m really struggling. When I tried to tell my supervisor, they did not listen. I even met with a university official who told me that most students were satisfied. They didn’t see a problem and advised a leave of absence as a solution. While it wasn’t their job to solve my problems, a little bit more understanding would have been nice. From all these experiences, all I know is that the universities on the face of it claim to care, but it’s just words and they really don’t.”