A student in distress

Photo: Tasha Fischer
Photo: Tasha Fischer

I sought the advice of Student Services shortly after arriving in St Andrews. I was in the grip of a full front existential life tizzy – grappling with fundamentals such as love, ambition, wealth accumulation and intellectual betterment (To complicate matters, I’d moved in with a Kiwi and realised I wasn’t even that sure about the role of vowels).

Stress, depression, personal set-backs, a death in the family, bullying and heartbreak, amongst other things, have the ability to send your head completely west. Not knowing where to turn or whom to turn to is perhaps one of the hardest situations one can face. But, even when you are at your lowest ebb or at your loneliest moment, rest assured that there is always someone who cares about you and wants to help. It might be a friend, a tutor, a parent or a university-led support initiative.

There is little comfort in being told that depression affects many of us, but it does. The Mental Health Foundation reports that nine percent of people in the UK meet the criteria for diagnosis of mixed anxiety and depression. Additionally, eight to 12 per cent of the population will experience depression in any given year. However, half of the people with common mental health problems are no longer affected after 18 months of onset. For those who cultivate an active lifestyle and social life, recovery can be even quicker and more complete.

It may seem that there is nothing you can do about stress. Essay deadlines loom over you like a rabid spectre, your house-mates might not be pulling their weight with their share of the housework or maybe someone has broken your heart. In my experience, nobody knows your own pain better than you do yourself. But don’t let that lead you to believe that no one else is capable of empathizing with you. They can and, more often than not, they will.

Stress and depression are not mutually exclusive. The ways in which these two dancing pariahs manifest themselves can range from bizarre to frightening. Depression creeps up on you in many different ways. But by asking yourself a series of questions, you can often locate its source.

Can you sleep? Do you sleep too much? At the far end of the spectrum, you might have to answer much harder questions: Are you suffering from an eating disorder? Do you want to hurt yourself? Are you angry all the time? At the opposite end of the spectrum lies manageable stress. The mental health charity, Mind, recommends analysing the sources of your stress. This approach provides the opportunity to isolate and address stressors individually.

A great way to combat stress is to exercise. Physical activity can help you feel calmer, stronger and better able to deal with whatever is troubling you. Exercise doesn’t necessarily need to take the form of an intense gym session; a brisk walk, a bike ride, team sport and dancing all qualify.

One of most frustrating realities of suffering from a mental illness is that the pain it causes resists rationalisation. Mental pain is often irrational, but seeking treatment is the most logical response. A friend recently put this simple truth into perspective for me. She asked me: “Lee, if I were to stab you right now, would you seek help?” The answer was obvious: Of course I would. In the case of mental pain, the same swift response ought to make as much sense.

Luckily, there is no shortage of help available at the University for students suffering from stress, anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses (or a combination thereof).

Always seek the advice of academic staff in the case of pervasive personal problems. Moreover, the existence of a paper trail will provide evidence if you ever need to request a Phase 2 Appeal before the University Senate, in which one can challenge a poor mark in the case of extenuating personal circumstances. Such an appeal can be a stressful prospect, but the University does all in its power to consider each application on its own merit.

While academic staff and friends can be excellent resources for students suffering from mental illness, professional advice is always available. The St Andrews University Advice and Support Centre provides counselling from trained professionals. They will listen to you, advise you and support you. Once you have contacted the centre, you will be scheduled to meet with a support advisor. In the case of an emergency, more immediate appointments can be made on their website: www.st-andrews.ac.uk/students/-advice/consellingsupport.

The support advisor will then assist you in deciding whether therapy is a good choice for you. Though the website states that you might wait as long as four weeks before your first appointment, in my own experience it may be as little as one.

Other support networks and services operate in St Andrews. Nightline and Student Minds are both services aimed at advising distressed students. Nightline is staffed by student volunteers. Katherine Skeels, speaking on behalf of the organization, says, “The standard of training is high. Selection is rigorous and works so that the organization gets the right people for the job.” Nightline is an anonymous service, but it can help inform student callers of other organizations that can provide assistance and support.

Student Minds is a student-led mental health charity that operates across the UK. Its work is based on the belief that peer intervention can change the state of students’ mental health for the better. The St Andrews branch provides peer-to-peer support and offers a number of courses aimed at helping students deal with various mental health issues.

There remains at least one elephant left in the room when it comes to talking about mental health. We live in a world in which the media exaggerates and essentialises the use of medication for the treatment of depression. Endorsement of ‘happy pills,’ however, can be both misguided and dangerous. It is essential to speak with a GP about the merits of anti-depressant medication.

In the case of mental distress, it’s so important to take the necessary steps, help yourself get the treatment you need, and to let others provide their support and assistance, both on a personal and professional level.

If you or someone you know is suffering from a mental illness at the University, the resources below are available to you:

To contact the University’s Advice and Support Centre, call: 01334 462020. You can also reach them via email: theasc@st-andrews.ac.uk. Their office is located at 79 North Street.

To contact Nightline (between 8pm and 7am every night that halls are open), call: 01334 462266. Or email: nightline@st-andrews.ac.uk.

To contact Student Minds, call: 01865 264168. Or email: info@studentminds.org.uk.


  1. I can’t speak for Nightline or Student Minds but personally (and I’ve spoken to others who have had similar experiences) the University Advice and Support Centre was terrible. I had to wait weeks for an appointment at a point in my life where I really was in desperate need of help (even though I did not realise this at the time).

    I understand that they warn that it may take four weeks for an appointment but a month is just not good enough for people in dire need of help. If they don’t have enough staff they need to hire more so that people can be seen far sooner. Otherwise it does not appear as if they are prioritising mental health.

    Also when I finally managed to get an appointment it was not a particularly pleasant experience. I spoke to someone who seemed to have little experience or knowledge and immediately attempted to push me towards drug therapy without any discussion of the issues. At the end of our meeting she kindly said I should email her any time to discuss what we had talked about but in the following weeks whenever I tried to email her I did not receive a reply and was left feeling stranded. I finally managed to meet with her again and she at first claimed not to have received them and then conceded that she actually had just hadn’t replied yet.

  2. The above post is not meant to discourage anyone from seeking help!! They should definitely try and see someone! But please follow through and try not to get discourage if the university services let you down

  3. My experience with both student minds and student services through the university have been overwhelmingly positive. I had to wait about a week for an initial meeting with an advisor and then 2/3 weeks for a counsellor appointment but it’s understandable. For a university this big I’m surprised it wasn’t longer, in my previous institution I had to wait months for a counsellor appointment and even within the NHS this can be longer. The university will never leave an individual ‘to their own means’ if they are seen as a risk to themselves or others. And in response to the previous comment – in my meetings/counselling sessions so far I have only been asked once if I am on medication and drug therapy has not been pushed to me at all. Thank you for writing this article – it’s good to see the reality of the situation laid out in black and white.

  4. Wow…a balanced and sensible article on mental health issues and Student Services in The Saint. Has it come under new editorship this semester?

  5. I’ve always found Student Services to be fantastic in helping me deal with my disability and both physical and mental health problems; the only problems I’ve ever encountered have been on the University side.

    This was an excellent article, and I’m so glad to see a new direction being taken by the saint on these issues.

  6. NOTE: An editorial decision was made to change some of the original text, this has left the brief discussion on the merits of antidepressant drugs somewhat wanting.

    The original text read: “We live in a world in which the media exaggerates and essentialises the use of medication for the treatment of depression. Headlines like ‘Britain Hooked on Happy Pills’ misrepresents the reality of psychotropic medication. Often, at their most efficacious, antidepressant drugs don’t work to cure sadness, more likely, they serve to help sufferers of depression manage daily life. As mental-health blogger Samantha Whyte puts it, less happy pills and more “a bit less grindingly shite pills”. It is essential to speak with a GP about the merits of anti-depressant medication.”

    For an excellent blog on medicating ‘happiness’, read: http://samanthawhyte.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/dulce-et-decorum-mental/

  7. I needed help and contacted BOTH the GP and Student Services. Now I am on medication and having therapy provided by the university and waiting for referral by the NHS for CBT and feel in a much better place and on the road to recovery. The first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. I am nowhere near 100% myself again but seeing a doctor was the best thing I could have done for myself.


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