Wake me up when September ends
Oh September. My favourite month of the year. The air is crispy and the ground is damp and the colours are turned up on everything. The compulsory smiles of summer are over and I can retreat to my natural state of woolly jumpers, hot drinks and Death Cab For Cutie. There’s something about September that always resonates with me; the world seems to buzz with the promise of a new beginning. I know this is a hang over from my school, college, university years, and yet it still feels like anything is possible in September.
My own experience of university was that that first September was the beginning of a sharp decline for my mental health as pressures, stress and loneliness became a suffocating everyday reality of life for a 19 year old out of their depth and a long way from home. It took over 18 months before I sought help from the university counselling service, by which point I was experiencing frequent panic attacks, constant anxiety and low mood and had basically kind of given up on life.
As I built up my resilience I began talking honestly to a friend of mine, a fellow student who had experienced similar things during our time at university, and it got me thinking that we cannot possibly be the only ones who weren’t living the dream in quite the way we envisaged. A little digging reveals that up to 87% of students reported struggling with stress at university and over 60% of those said they found it difficult to cope (The Guardian, 2017). The triggers were reported to be primarily around academic and social expectations, financial difficulties and isolation.
It makes me feel quite angry that this is such a well-kept secret. The pressure put on young people to have the absolute best time of their lives at university is immense, and it’s perpetuated by social media, peers and let’s be honest, the universities themselves get in on the narrative too. Much of the mandatory ‘fun’ students are expected to have is centred around risk-taking behaviours; most of which aren’t too good for your mental health either.
When we plan to go to uni we imagine an exciting new city, interesting new friends, engaging conversation and the beginning of a new life. That’s all fine. But what we fail to consider is the emotional consequence of losing the places, people, routines and habits of the life you already know. For adults, we acknowledge that it’s really hard to move house, to separate from a partner, to change jobs… but 18-21 year olds do all of these things at once, literally on one day in early September, and are expected to feel ecstatic about it. And for a while, you do. But the adrenaline can’t last forever and we are letting young people down as a society to put all of this pressure on them to have their lives follow a certain path, in a certain way, and offer them no support when things get real.
Students plaster on a happy face and take the pictures that tell the story – “I’m having the time of my life”. But the reality is often much more complex, and it’s about time that universities, the media, students unions and other relevant organisations took some responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of students. We need to be hearing more honest advice about the real decision you are making when you choose to go to university; professionally, financially, socially and emotionally. Universities need to be investing in better student support services with shorter waiting lists and qualified counsellors available when help is needed, not 6 months. And for freakshake’s sake we need to start talking honestly to each other about the way we’re feeling. We’ve all been guilty of posting a picture on Instagram that makes it look like we’re having a great time when the reality was quite different. Let’s get real with each other.
So if you’re starting university this week, I wish you knowledge and growth and experience and joy and I hope you meet people that change your life and read books that change your mind. But if you don’t, you’re not the only one. Life is, after all, profoundly average most of the time. That’s okay. Look after yourself and each other.
Visyon provides mental health and wellbeing support for children, young people and their families, and 34% of Visyon’s clients are of university age. To support our work go to www.visyon.org.uk/donate.