Mental health stigma on campus - a lesson missing from the lecture hall

A survey recently conducted by OnePoll on behalf of the Priory Group has revealed concerning figures about how university students perceive peers with mental health issues. Overall, the survey highlights a lack of understanding and sympathy for students living with mental health, and shows more could be done to educate their peers and remove the stigma.

University is generally considered to be a broadening experience that develops character and harbours understanding but, for some, this just isn’t the case. Living with a mental health issue can complicate the university ‘experience’, and can make it harder to get the most out of the opportunities it presents. Add social stigma and potential peer ignorance into the mix, and university becomes much more of a strain.

Mental health prejudice on university campuses

The second Priory Group University Mental Health Day (UMHD) survey aimed to gauge student attitudes towards mental health at university. Alarmingly, almost seven out of ten respondents said they found it hard to believe that their peers were suffering from a mental health condition. This may be due to a general lack of awareness regarding mental health issues amongst students. It could also be due to the nature of mental health conditions, in that they are not always obvious, and may fluctuate depending on how the student is feeling and the treatment they receive

Student mental health 7 in 10 struggle

Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Woking, Dr Ian Drever, explains “I think that the lack of being able to see mental health issues leads some to think that actually it isn’t really an illness at all – but it is. Literally you can see a problem with a broken leg. You can take an x-ray and see the break – and no such thing happens in psychiatry”. But, for the most part, Drever thinks the problem is caused by “a lack of understanding or ignorance for want of a better word. Lack of understanding of, for instance, what depression actually is.”

Older students most likely to judge their peers

Older students in the age bracket 35-44 were found to be the least likely to believe their student peers with 93% of them admitting to having doubts about the truthfulness of their statements. This age bracket also seemed to be the most judgemental, with 89% of them believing that mental health issues carry a stigma.

The tendency to stigmatise those with mental health echoes the trends revealed in the Priory Group’s 2014 UMHD survey, which found that 25% of students felt uncomfortable talking to their peers about mental health issues, and half of the respondents experienced negative backlash.

Worryingly, this year’s survey also found that six in ten students have actually witnessed a fellow student with a mental health condition be stigmatised.

Dr Drever believes that this attitude “hinders people coming forward to seek help from us in the first place. Sometimes they have the feeling that they’re a bit of a fraud or weak. And we tell them that actually it’s quite the opposite – it’s a sign of strength that they’re seeking help and have decided to put up their hand and say that they need a bit of help to take action and turn the illness around..”

9 in 10 Students say more could be done to help

Students share personal experiences

To find out more about what students with mental health conditions had themselves experienced, we also conducted a Twitter survey via our @PrioryGroup account. The results showed a range of responses to the students’ disclosure of their mental health conditions, but the clear message was that disbelief was a common problem and that stigma and isolation abounds in university settings.

One student echoed Dr Drever’s sentiments on visibility: “It's hard because it's not a visible issue, I think they think because I turn up to lectures there is nothing wrong, but it's exhausting for me.”

Others have received more overt criticism: “I've been told to stop wallowing and just get my work done,” and “Whenever I've gone through a period of feeling low others have just dismissed it as being teenage hormones or saying that it's completely normal to feel down – they just didn't understand the difference to depression.”

Dr Drever expands on this problem of perception, saying “People think depression is just low mood but actually depression is a whole spectrum of features, it has a significant adverse effect on someone’s memory, concentration, ability to interact, ability to socialise, ability to focus and study, sleep patterns, appetite patterns – a whole range of features can go awry in depression.” And this range of features can be hugely detrimental to someone trying to study for a degree.

Start the conversation

The Priory’s survey found that 90% of students agreed that more could be done by universities to help students with a mental health condition. Normalising open discussion about mental health issues, and simply raising awareness of the different ways people can be affected are just some ways that universities can help overcome mental health stigma.

Charities such as University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN) and Student Minds are leading the way in raising awareness and striking up conversations about mental health issues with students. The common goal is to create campuses where any student with a mental health condition feels able to seek help, and comfortable disclosing their illness without fear of stigma from their peers or staff.

Awareness days such as University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day are a great step forward towards this goal, and a high number of UK universities are getting on board with the campaign.

If you would like to know more about how Priory Hospitals can help if you have concerns about mental health issues, please contact: 0845 277 4679 or click here to make an enquiry.