Every university student will have heard at least once that university is meant to be “the best four years of your life.” In countless films and books, the university experience has been idolized as an exhilarating right of passage in which students work hard, party harder, discover their true identities and meet friends they will keep for life. But, in reality, the vast majority of students are silently struggling to find happiness at university. According to a recent survey by the National Union of Students, eight out of 10 students experienced mental health issues at university last year. A third also experienced suicidal thoughts, and over half did not seek help for how they were feeling. Of the students that did not seek help, a third claimed they did not know what resources were available to them, and forty percent said they did not trust that they would have received the support they needed from their university.
These distressing results prompted the All-Party Parliamentary Group on students (APPG) to coordinate an event last December that brought together MPs and peers to address the urgent issue of students’ mental health needs on campus. Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield Central and chair of the APPG on students, told The Guardian: “These findings show us that significant numbers of students are suffering with mental health problems, many of them silently.” Exceedingly high expectations of what university will be like have left many students unprepared for the difficulties they will inevitably face, ashamed when they do not feel as happy as they feel they are supposed to, and unsure where to turn to for help.
Students coming to the University of St Andrews may have even higher expectations than most. Our idyllic university by the sea was named the “happiest” university in the UK in 2014 by the National Student Survey, which found that 93 per cent of St Andrews students were “satisfied or very satisfied” with their academic experience here. But in 2015, St Andrews’ student satisfaction ratings dropped significantly, placing the university at 25th place overall in the NSS poll. (Though it is worth noting that the NSS rankings are decided by multiple factors, including students’ satisfactions with their courses and students’ association.) For many St Andrews students, university is inevitably not as idyllic as they had hoped.
Miriam Chappell, SRC Wellbeing Officer, notes that while there are many things that make St Andrews a wonderful place to be a student, there are ways in which our small and relatively isolated community can pose difficulties for students’ mental well-being. “Since we’re in such a small place, we can be a very tight-knit community, which is much easier for us than city universities,” she says. “But it’s not without its flaws and pressures, and in any student body there will be unhappy people, people who feel isolated and people who suffer from stress.” St Andrews’ small community can be both a blessing and a curse. Ms Chappell continues: “Being surrounded by this ‘bubble’ of student life can put extra pressure on, and the pace of life is very fast as a result. And, of course, the fact that a very large proportion of our students come from abroad, and very, very few are local – it’s not easy to go home for the weekend when you need a break, which makes it all quite intense.”
St Andrews’ school presidents are working hard to improve student satisfaction within the classroom. Megan Bruce, president of the School of History, says: “Student satisfaction is incredibly important. Our academic staff do a great job of nurturing academic curiosity, and that is a huge amount of what a satisfying academic environment is about.” More specifically, she says: “I think one of the things that helps history maintain its high levels of satisfaction, and that we have received consistently positive feedback on, is small class sizes, particularly at Honours level, and the capped tutorial sizes at sub-honours level. These go a long way to ensuring that students receive focused attention and input into their learning from experts in their field.”
But many worry that it is the system of elite education itself that is causing students to be unhappy. William Deresiewicz, a former professor of English at Yale, called attention to the psychological harms of elite university education in a 2014 article for The New Republic entitled ‘Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,’ which quickly went viral. He writes: “Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that lets you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth – ‘success.’ What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want one—all this was off the table.” He also warns: ‘Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.’ The recent NUS survey seems to prove his point.
The academic pressures at St Andrews can be equally harmful for students’ mental health. Ms Chappell says: “St Andrews is full of go-getters, as you would expect, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to achieve. The normalisation of stress is a big problem. Stress should not be considered normal. Stress should not be seen as proof you are working hard. Stress is a problem which needs to be dealt with.”
Dr Christine Lusk, Director of Student Services, is concerned that not enough students are aware of the extensive options that Student Services provides for mental health difficulties and even the general “troubles of life” they may face while at St Andrews. Dr Lusk told The Saint: “There is a lot of inaccurate, damaging and, frankly, dangerous misinformation… about the lack of Mental Health services here in St Andrews to the extent where students last year were frightened about seeking help.” The reality, Dr Lusk clarified, is that Student Services sees “over 4,000 students every year – not only on mental health issues of course – but with early stage problems: visas expiring, no money, study allowances for disability, housing problems” and more.
Additionally, Student Services provides help to many students for more serious problems, including a wide range of physical health issues, chronic illnesses, sexual assault and severe and enduring mental illness. Dr Lusk insists that “the vast majority of what people present us with are troubling issues and make people feel low in mood, but are not mental illness. They are troubles of life, especially in a place where our expectations are very high and the pressures can be fierce.”
According to Dr Lusk, the University’s Student Services sees “a higher percentage than most universities” of students seeking help and tailors its resources to address the unique pressures and difficulties that St Andrews’ students face. The Support Advisers’ team is the only one of its kind in the UK and provides students with one-on-one help whatever the issue at hand. An adviser’s job description includes “intervene[ing] to advocate on behalf of a student to take away a problem [that] is worrying them,” Dr Lusk says, such as “talking on their behalf to a landlord or helping to arrange an academic extension.” But, she adds: “Critically we have to make sure that people also realise that they have the ability to help [address] the lower level problems themselves.” For this reason, “Student Services has invested in an online self-help workshop tool for mental health through which a staff member will help support the student through.” This has had phenomenally positive effects on many, many students this year.
Nightline is another resource available for students who struggle with mental wellbeing. Toby Phimister, Nightline’s publicity officer, says: “Students can face a variety of difficulties through their time at university. Be it feeling homesick, troubles with friends, academic difficulties or just needing to chat with someone. Nightline is a space for students to talk about anything that might be on their mind. The goal of the service is to listen and not lecture.”
Ms Chappell is quick to add that there are plenty of options available on campus, including Nightline, that provide guidance to students for a variety of issues. Student Minds offer peer support. Saints LGBT+ run an anonymous email that is open to everyone. The Union’s Wellbeing Committee helps to coordinate de-stress events in conjunction with the University’s own mental health resources, especially around exams. This week is, in fact, Mental Health Awareness Week, and the University is hosting visiting speakers, yoga practice, dance classes and more in recognition of it.
University may not be the best four years of your life. Of course, there will be days that are worse than others and memories that we would all prefer to forget. But, with the right support system, personal challenges can be addressed and the university experience can be made better. Advocates for mental health resources on campus and the team at Student Services are working hard to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health difficulties and to provide help for all sorts of life’s issues. To this end, Dr Lusk ultimately has a hopeful message for St Andrews students who may be struggling. “We have the brightest and most resilient students who, with encouragement, can develop the self-strengthening strategies to face challenges,” she says. “If, as they do, they realise the troubles are temporary and can be worked through, they go on to succeed well.” She suggests that most students are able to reach this point and notes that the University has one of the lowest attrition rates of any university in the world. The challenges of the bubble may be unique, but so are its benefits. If students can learn to seek out support when they need it, university will not only be a good time but also a period of personal growth.
Nightline is open from 8 pm to 7 am every night that halls are open. Students can contact the service at 01334 462266, via email at email@example.com or through their new instant messaging service, which can be accessed through their website: www.st-andrews.ac.uk/ nightline.