Time to take a break: University and your mental health

As you’re preparing to return to university or heading off for the first time, it’s important to ensure your mental health comes first.

Research has highlighted that one in ten students think about self-harming, whilst one in five young people have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Siobhan Macdonald investigates the link between university and mental health, and discovers the benefits of taking time out of your degree.

The stigma around mental health is gradually dispersing, allowing people to have open and candid conversations about their mental health.

Anyone can have mental health issues at any stage in their life – with one in four people experiencing mental illness in a year – but research shows that university students are particularly at risk.

There are so many changes that happen in your life when you go to university – for many people it’s their first time living independently away from their family support system. Even if you don’t need to move away for university, there are still huge lifestyle changes that come with university.

It takes a long time to adjust to student life, with many students experiencing difficulty maintaining healthy day-to-day routines whilst experiencing academic, social and financial pressure.

“When it comes to taking time away from university, young people should do what is right for them. Regardless of the situation it’s important to feel you are able to ask for help, no one should ever be made to feel ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help for their mental health,” advises Nick Jedrzejewski, See Me spokesperson.

With mounting pressure affecting students, more are turning to have a break from their studies.

Glasgow student Nance Lewis has taken one year out of her degree to focus on improving her mental health. Nance realises now that burning the candle at both ends with the pressure of university, alongside all of life’s other demands, resulted in her nervous breakdown.

REALISATION

When asked about how she realised she needed to take a break, Nance explains: “I was too anxious to leave the house most days so I knew I couldn’t focus. I planned to take my own life… No one understands how truly terrifying it is to feel like you want to die. I confided in my partner and he helped.”

The Insight Network, a private health care provider, surveyed 37,654 students from 140 universities across the UK.

Figures from the report highlighted that 18.2 per cent of those surveyed said their symptoms first commenced during university.

Dr Stephen Pereira, consultant psychiatrist and Director of the Insight Network, was quoted explaining the team conducted the survey to help universities and the NHS “better understand student mental health.”

Nance acknowledges that whilst university wasn’t the cause of her mental health issues, it certainly didn’t help them.

She adds: “Uni exacerbated my mental health problems, not because of university itself but because it was an added pressure I could have done without.”

CHANGES

“Taking time out of uni definitely allowed me to appreciate how hectic uni life is, and just how deadline-heavy and work intensive my course is. This will allow me to hit the ground running when I return,” Nance adds.

“The changes I’ll make when I return will be changes I’ve already made to my life while I’ve been on a break – learning to deal with my mental health, using healthy coping mechanisms and maintaining a routine.”

When asked what advice Nance has for other students who are struggling with their mental health, she says: “You can always return to education. Never put your mental health after uni.”

When asked about how universities can do more to support their students struggling, Nick responds: “Due to the lack of open conversations young people find it hard to identify or access where to find the right help and support.

“Through embedding mental health within education, whilst challenging the prevailing stigma and discrimination by making it clear and visible that it’s okay not to be okay, lasting change can be achieved for young people across Scotland.”

STIGMA

Nance opened up to her course mates before taking time out, messaging people explaining her reasons for taking time out, because Nance knows how important discussions about mental health are from her experiences.

Now, Nance’s course mates know they can speak to her about their mental health as nothing is taboo.

It seems that although people are coming forward with their stories of mental health struggles, from celebrities to your friends or someone in class, there is still a level of stigma attached.

Nick adds: “Young people can find it hard to talk about their feelings, especially when they are struggling to cope.

“A survey we carried out by See Me as part of our FeelsFM campaign in September revealed that only 26 per cent of young people would tell someone if they were struggling to cope.

“When you are in a new environment, like university, all these worries are amplified as it is an unfamiliar situation. All universities should work towards having open, and caring cultures around mental health.”

Nance realises that taking time out of her degree has benefitted her an unbelievable amount.

Nance enthuses: “The break has allowed me to focus on improving my mental wellbeing. I’ve just finished a course of CBT, which has changed my life. I would never have had the time or will to work on myself if I was juggling uni work.”

We all have mental health and it is important to look after it. Growing up with the pressures to succeed, work towards your dream job, whilst socialising can be draining. It’s okay not to be okay, and it’s okay to take time out for you.

For more information on how to beat mental health stigma, visit See Me, if you are struggling with your mental health visit the Samaritansor call 116123.

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