Freshers and Mental Health

Blue Tree intern Maddy Lykourgos discusses the alarmingly high rate of mental health problems among first-year university students…

Moving into university is an exciting time for many young people, the first chance for most to gain more independence and autonomy. However, recent figures show that across the world as many as 1 in 3 Freshers, aka first-year university students, experience ill mental health. This can be anything from substance misuse, to mania, panic disorder, depression and anxiety. The rates seem alarmingly higher than in the general population, so it poses the question: what is contributing to the prevalence for this particular group?

Possible reasons behind the statistics

While the rates of diagnoses are concerning, there may be quite unsurprising reasons for the increased prevalence among the Freshers population.

It is important to mention that many students come to university with pre-existing mental health problems. Recently, the adolescent teenage group have been linked with an increase in suicide attempts. The years at school leading up to university are highly-pressured in themselves and with the advent of social media and the 24 hour digital era, there is no respite from difficult relationships and life stressors. From the onset, the process of starting university is completely anxiety-provoking. The uncertainty attached to starting afresh would naturally evoke the same worries for anyone, and that’s without the added wait for A-Level results and the gruelling lead up to leaving behind all home comforts to start gaining independence and becoming self-sufficient. This time of self-discovery often coincides with students being newly legal drinkers and a year full of Freshers’ events with the promise of free-flowing alcohol and even illicit substances that bring the appeal of escape from social and academic pressures. Experimentation can be a natural part of growing up, but at an age of high-impressionability, it can lead to unwise or dangerous decision-making or an unfortunate substance misuse or addiction problem. With alcohol being a known depressant and most ‘party’ drugs being stimulants, the effects can be extremely detrimental for these young adults.

Additionally, there is an increased amount of pressure on the younger generations to succeed. Nowadays, success is dependent on academic achievement; high grades are a must in order to secure competitive internships that may or may not lead to a job that will leave them both financially secure and emotionally fulfilled in the future. The ever-increasing struggle of the work-life balance remains a seemingly fictitious ideal that continues to elude most of us. Coupled with late nights and poor sleep patterns, the stress can take a toll on the body, and in fact, on the mind. Most mental health problems are exacerbated by a lack of sleep, as well as by increased cortisol-levels, from the added stress. Cortisol, commonly labelled as ‘the stress hormone’ depletes dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to mood regulation. Hence why your mood tends to dampen with increasing levels of pressure from your surrounding environment.

Moreover, on top of everything else going on at this time, there’s the continued issue of wanting to fit in and societies provide the scope to belong to a group. The downside is that group mentalities can often promote discriminatory behaviour and sanction abusive or hazing rituals masked as initiations or rites of passage. Abuse of any kind can lead to a range of psychological and emotional distress, including anxiety, depression or PTSD and often the vulnerability of being a victim of abuse makes people reluctant to report it. For instance, in the case of the 62% of university students that face sexual violence, only 6% feel able to report it and get support for living with such traumatic experiences. These unresolved feelings can get internalised and manifest in a large range of both psychological and physical illnesses. So, it stands to reason that there is a lot for this group to deal with, and yet, both they and their difficulties are so often undermined due to their youth and inexperience of the world.

What can we do about it?

The unfortunate truth is that for so many people at such a high-pressured time of life, seeking support for their mental health is not a high priority. By increasing awareness around mental health and decreasing the attached stigma, the hope is that people’s reluctance to seek out help also diminishes. While student counselling services can be available, there is often a difficulty to establish a rapport, and complete necessary therapeutic work, given the resource constraints. However, many clinics, including Blue Tree offer student discounts, in an attempt to make treatment more accessible and alleviate some of the pressures associated with seeking private healthcare. We offer a range of therapies with a highly knowledgeable set of professionals who tailor treatments to suit the individual and their situation. There is even the option to have sessions on weekends, over the phone or by video call so that treatment doesn’t interfere with busy term time schedules or study time. Contact us now for more information on how Blue Tree might be able to help students or their families through some of the stressful and difficult times over the course of university.