University and Happiness: A look at student mental health during the transition and experience of third-level education
Upon beginning in UCD as a freshman, what will be surprising to many is the degree of loneliness that can be felt on campus. Compared to a school environment, it’s suddenly a lot harder to catch up with friends. As well as the largeness of campus, clashing timetables can quickly become a hindrance to staying in touch with pals as much as we’d like to. It happens. It also means that for many, college is not necessarily the fun-filled, carefree experience they might have expected. Not everyone becomes accustomed to campus life quickly, and the day-to-day college experience is not always an easy one. One look at the bathroom graffiti in the Newman building and you can be certain of that.
One of the primary complications of this daily reality is how unprepared most incoming third level students are to deal with it. Combine that with the academic pressure of college and the demands of a different kind of social life, one peppered with the responsibilities that come with involvement in clubs and societies, and it can seem daunting to many to make your college years the “best years of your life”, as the media often purports them to be. It’s unrealistic to expect any 3 or 4 year window of time to be superior to all others past, present, or future, let alone one packed with deadlines, demands, and the expectation to kick off a career.
The Union of Students in Ireland National Report on Student Mental Health, published this year with the HSE, found by surveying over 374,000 third level students across the island of Ireland that 38.4% of students are experiencing severe levels of anxiety. A further 29.9% of participants reported high feelings of depression, and 17.3% were susceptible to considerable stress. A shocking fifth of students said they had no one to talk to about their personal and mental difficulties, and for a majority of the students involved, working had a negative impact on their ability to socialise with other students.
Students are clearly under a high amount of pressure, with factors varying from living arrangements to academia to doubts regarding sexuality and gender. It also must be considered that not everyone is well-suited to the type of learning environment provided at third-level. In an article for The Irish Times titled ‘Are we sending too many young people to college?’, Carl O’Brien suggests that in a country where 14% of students do not continue onto the 2nd year of their degree, the transition from secondary to third level education may do well to be re-evaluated. In the Ireland of today, third level education is taken for granted by the majority. Among the middle and upper classes, it is the thing that is done, often regardless of personal circumstances. Leaving full time education following a young person’s completion of the Leaving Certificate is often frowned upon. However, the question must be asked; who is anyone to say that lecture-based learning is of equal effectiveness to all students? Students who feel a consistent disdain for their course should ask themselves whether their course is right for them. Moreover, students have the right to ask themselves that question without shame. It is, after all, the responsible and self-regarding thing to do, even if it goes against the values of family or their peers. It must be emphasised however, that this is not an easy decision for most to make. Students need and deserve support in difficult times such as these.
It would be untrue to say that there are no support services available to students who are struggling. Destigmatization of mental health in Ireland in recent years has spawned more student led initiatives towards mental healthcare, such as Niteline and Please Talk. In UCD, free counselling services can be accessed by students through UCD Health. However, the waiting list for an appointment is a cause for concern. The information leaflet for the UCD Student Counselling Service divulges that ‘At times during the year students may have to wait a number of months before receiving an initial counselling appointment.’. Staffing may very well be a challenge, but a waiting list as lengthy as it is vague is not encouraging.
Returning to the USI’s key findings in the National Report on Mental Health, students who reported being involved in activities outside of their coursework had better mental health than those who didn’t. While it may very well be daunting not only to approach a society but also be involved in it as an operation, many society events are not only easily accessible on campus but also a good way to meet people with common interests. While college can often feel like an isolating place, it is vital to keep in mind that, in some unfortunate irony, you are not the only one to feel that way. Academic resources such as assignment extensions and leave of absence exist to be used, and there is no shame in taking advantage of them should they be needed. Services such as Niteline and Please Talk are in place for a reason, and serve numerous college campuses in Ireland, such as ITT, ITB, MU, NCAD, NCI, RCSI, TCD and UCD. Though mental health services for students in Ireland are far from perfect, and being a student is not always easy, there is always help available, even be it as simple as a chat with a friend.
Eva Earner – Features Writer