UK students suffer in silence when it comes to mental health

A recent survey commissioned by the Priory Group reveals that a shocking 1 in 4 students are too uncomfortable to reveal their mental health problems to their friends for fear of being mistreated.

Many young people look forward to the opportunities which university provides with excitement, hoping to meet new people and enjoy “the best years” of their life.  Unfortunately, this is inevitably not the case for all students.

In a recent study undertaken by the Priory Group it has been revealed that an alarming number of students are keeping their mental health problems a secret, out of fear that they will be shut off by their friends.

Alienated from their peers

The survey which was conducted across 18 universities in the UK polled students on their personal experiences with mental health and the attitudes they had experienced from their peers.  Almost half admitted that exposing their mental health problems had affected their relationship with their friends, leaving them isolated from social events and unable to ask for support.

Students’ aged 18 – 25 explained how once they had opened up to their friends about their mental health problems they began to notice a difference in their friendship. Students recalled how invitations stopped; gradually phone calls ceased and jokes were made at their expense in what they depicted as a deliberate attempt to remove them from friendship groups

Alarmingly, not only did students suffer isolations from their peers but 1 in 6 students explained that their friends did not take them seriously when they revealed their condition, describing  how they were branded as ‘lazy’ and ‘attention seeking’, showing a distinct lack of support being given at a time when it is most needed.

Unsurprisingly 16% of those diagnosed admitted that they felt they had lost friends as a result of talking about their mental health problems.

Divided attitude

Wanting to assess the other side of the story, students were also asked about their personal experiences of being a friend to someone with a mental health problem. Of all those surveyed, 75% of students believed that they had been supportive when their friend had told them about their mental health problem – showing a clear contradiction in opinion with those diagnosed.

More than a third admitted to feeling emotionally distressed by their friend’s confession but only 1 in 5 went on to further research their friend’s illness and how they could be more supportive.

The survey did highlight that attitudes towards mental health are moving in the right direction with as little as 1 in 20 students admitting their friend’s mental health problem made them feel awkward, suggesting that the anti-stigma campaigns run by charities such as Time to Change are working to improve awareness.

A Time to Change spokesperson gave this advice “there are lots of simple, everyday ways you can support someone who has a mental health problem. Small things can make a big difference – like being there to listen, keeping in touch and reminding the other person that you care.

She added, “by taking the lead in conversations and avoiding clichés such as, ‘cheer up’ and ‘I’m sure it will pass’ students will feel more confident in talking about mental health.”

First year students worst hit

With friendships relatively new, first year students seemed to experience the worst of the backlash, with half stating they had experienced negative attitudes towards them after disclosing their condition.

This could suggest why 43% of first year students diagnosed with a mental health problem said they did not feel comfortable talking about it to their peers.

Worryingly, this was also reflected in the attitudes of students who were friends with someone diagnosed with a mental health problem, with as little as 14% saying that they had been supportive in their friends’ time of need.

More education needed

When it came to the various reasons why, students diagnosed were very clear on what they believed were the causes behind the prejudice:

  • 100% of them attributed it to a lack of understanding
  • 83% claimed it was the social stigma attached to mental health
  • 83% of them said it was because of a lack of experience with mental health problems
  • 45% said it was down to the media’s representation of mental health problems
  • 36% said that they felt it was because their friends were intimidated by their mental health problems

With 1 in 5 students claiming to know someone with a mental health issue, the results highlight key areas where young people’s attitudes need to be improved.

Disturbingly, this problem could lie within the educational system, as 86% of students diagnosed claimed that not enough is being taught about mental health within schools and universities.

Dr David Kingsley, Consultant Adolescent Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Cheadle Royal noted that

“mental health problems are surprisingly common in students, including Depression, Self-harmAnxiety Disorders and Eating Disorders.  As this is often the first time that they have been away from home, they can feel isolated and unable to access support for their difficulties.  Universities and colleges usually offer counselling and support for such students and it is important that they feel able to access this.

He continued by suggesting that

It is also important, however, that universities and colleges help other students to understand mental health issues better, so that students can access the support they need from their peers and their difficulties aren’t compounded by an experience of misunderstanding or prejudice from their friends.”

Third year students at highest risk

Unsurprisingly, when it came to diagnosis, third year students suffered most from anxiety and stress. Faced with the added pressures of final exams and the work load of dissertations, anxiety rose as high as 46% and stress reached alarming figures, with 90% of third years admitting to have suffered.

Sadly, when it came to depression, third years also suffered the highest with almost three quarters of third year students surveyed being diagnosed as depressed.  

Encouraging discussion

The results are being released as the University Mental Health and Advisors Network are preparing for their annual University Mental Health and Wellbeing Awareness Day, which takes place across 39 campuses in the UK.  The event, which takes place on Wednesday 19th February, aims to create a mentally healthy environment for students and staff, whilst encouraging campuses to address and discuss student mental health.

Hopefully events like this will create a more positive attitude towards mental health in the future and a more encouraging atmosphere for students in a university environment.

If you would like further information on the points raised in this article or would like to speak to a Priory specialist, then please call: 0845 277 4679.