Decades ago, the pressure heaped on university students was very different. Peer pressure consisted mostly of finding out who could party until dawn and still make it to their 9am exam. However, today there are multiple pressures stacked onto young individuals. With fees at an all time high, fewer jobs after graduation and the likelihood that a graduate comes out of university with considerable debt before they’ve even earned a penny, it may seem that there is just one pressure – which is financial in nature.
Add to that the stress of isolation, up-to-the-minute comparison via social media and a workload that may feel like running a mental marathon everyday, and you’ve got a recipe that can test the psychological resources of just about anyone. In this article, we’re going to explore the unique challenges faced by university students today and how they can look after their mental health during this important chapter of their lives.
Does our fantasy of university match reality?
When we’re young (and perhaps without as much real-world experience), it’s easy to idealise the upcoming events in life. The university experience is no exception – many first year students who start their degrees are sometimes under a range of illusions. Take, for example, the student who was an intellectual star at sixth form, who when compared to their counterparts at university, is only mediocre at best. There’s also the illusion that it’ll be so much fun to finally escape the family unit – which comes crashing down when you’re running a high fever, trying to cook dinner, cram for exams and do the laundry all at once – and there’s no one there to give you a hug or tell you you’ll get through this.
Sometimes, what makes coping even harder is that some students appear to be sailing through, while you’re trying hard to keep up. Some students who attended boarding school would have mastered the art of living away from the comforts of home and would have gained considerable experience in managing the stress of difficult situations on their own.
How a reality check can crack open a can of worms
While these situations may not sound like a big deal to older generations, who have taken to calling younger generations “snowflakes”, it’s good to experience psychological triggers at a young age. Because it enables you to clear your path far sooner, so that the rest of your life can be lived with greater clarity and joy.
Triggers come in all shapes and sizes and they typically bring up feelings of past trauma. Examples of triggers can be quite small – so for example, a war veteran can be triggered when watching a violent movie. Another example is of a person who is recovering from an eating disorder, who gets triggered when looking at photos of thin celebrities.
The psychological effects that arise from triggers
Once triggered, it’s easy to feel out of control. To regain a sense of control, female students in particular are more likely to develop an eating disorder. And in general, students who are suffering in some way psychologically may decline all invitations to socialise and let off steam, thinking that if they just work harder, that will solve their problems.
Anxiety and depression are the most common ailments suffered by students. Of those surveyed recently by YouGov, 77% of students who reported mental health issues have depression related problems, and 74% have anxiety related problems. Eating disorders follow at 14%, while behavioural or developmental issues are experienced by 5%.
Healthy behaviours that help students get through
There are many unhealthy coping strategies that students adopt to get through university. Drinking alcohol, emotional eating, procrastinating, online shopping, secluding oneself and constantly engaging in negative self-talk are just some of the strategies that students turn to, to get through times when they are stressed out or simply not motivated to continue. In fact, the number of students who choose not to complete their degree has trebled over the last 10 years.
The best thing a student can do during university is make sure they can build a good solid friendship with just one or two like-minded people. Creating even a small support network is vital, because there will be times you just need to talk to someone, or want support from someone who genuinely cares. Maintaining a healthy sleep routine is also essential, as younger people generally need more sleep than older people.
It’s essential that young adults start to learn basic stress management techniques. Things like not comparing oneself to anyone else, creating a good sleep routine and not relying on coffee or sugar will go a long way to setting up the right conditions to minimise stress.