Comment | Smash mental health taboos on campus

Last week, campuses across the UK celebrated University Mental Health Day. While it’s always promising to see nation-wide efforts to stimulate positive discussion around mental health, it’s especially important that progress is made when reaching out to students. No matter where you go to university, mental health is all too often a taboo subject. This problem is made more serious when you consider that the stats show that students are now struggling more with their mental health today than they ever have before.

The burden of high tuition fees, a tough graduate job market, leaving behind family and old friends; it’s unsurprising that many students develop mental health problems when they come to uni. For many, it can be an exciting time to make new friends and broaden horizons. But it can also be an isolated experience which fails to live up to the hype and high expectations. Trying to juggle moving to a new area, being subjected to new academic pressures, the anxiety of trying to make new friends and keeping up a busy social life will inevitably take its toll.

With all this in mind, it’s very concerning that uni is a place where mental health is barely ever discussed. When you’re trying to fit in with a new group of people, there’s a good chance that the last thing you want to reveal is that you have a mental illness. That’s the taboo in a nutshell. Lots of students simply don’t feel comfortable talking openly about these issues with their house mates or course mates and as a result don’t feel any sense of support or understanding from their peers which can often make things worse. On top of all this, research shows that many feel they cannot come forward through fears that they’ll be discriminated against by their university, lecturers or even their future employers.

But the problem doesn’t just lie with the taboo. Higher education institutions are complicit in allowing students to suffer in silence. Staff members often fail to spot the signs that a student might be having problems, or in instances where they do know about the problem they don’t always know what to say or do to help. At many institutions, there are long waiting lists for counselling services which worryingly prevents a number of students from seeking help when they need it. It’s not just important that tutors and lecturers have a better understanding of mental health issues, it’s also vital that there are adequate support services in place to provide students with the help and support they need.

It’s down to all of us to face these problems head on. As students, we need to break down the old barriers when it comes to talking about mental health. There’s just no reason why we should talk about our mental health any less than we do our physical health. If we continue to avoid the subject we only ensure that our many of our colleagues continue to suffer in silence. It’s essential that all universities, not just Leeds, take action on this as well to ensure that students are properly supported. Initiatives like University Mental Health Day have their place, but it’s not enough. We have to start talking. We have to shatter those preconceived ideas of what is appropriate to be discussed  openly, and what should stay private. It’s time to start talking about our mental health.

Alice Smart

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