Depression: the low down

Anne Balls

Mental health problems are more widespread than many of us would expect. In 2014-2015 an estimated 17.3% of us (20.1% female and 14.3% male) in the UK aged 16 and older showed symptoms of anxiety or depression. Amongst young people aged 16-24, this figure is even higher, at 19.4% (ONS, 2015).

According to an NUS survey 69% said they have experienced feeling depressed in the past year. During the same period, as many as 75% of students believe they experienced problems with their mental health.

Depression can have many triggers and a complex range of potential causes. Family history, personality traits, traumas, ill health, alcohol, drugs, loneliness and stressful events can all contribute to the illness (NHS Choices, 2016). Starting university is a particularly stressful time since during this single event in their lives students are faced with a broad range of social and academic challenges, as well as brand new responsibilities. When we surveyed 1,000 first and second year students we found that before and during their first month at university 59% of students felt anxious, 41% felt stressed and 18% felt unprepared.

Many students find the transition into university overwhelming. It is often the first time they live away from home and lack their traditional support networks, which can make them vulnerable to developing mental health problems, such as depression, or making the existing problems worse. Difficulties with making friends, worrying about fitting in, getting on with new flatmates and coping with academic workload and domestic chores are very common among freshers. Research shows that international students and those from poor socio-economic backgrounds often find the first months at university particularly challenging.

Although most universities offer student support services, they’re significantly overstretched and often unable to cope with the increasing demand. Evidently, much more needs to be done to help students with the transition to university. Receiving effective wellbeing support and advice is crucial for students who are struggling through this change in their lives.