The student mental health crisis: A generation game?

Is our mental health really worse than our parents’, or do we just talk about it more?

Written by: Natalie Hunter

Art by: JoJo Taylor

It is no secret that university mental health services across the country are struggling massively to keep up with demand, and UCL is no exception. Despite increases in funding and staffing, there are still waiting times of up to 6 weeks for first counselling sessions, and 21% of students who request counselling choose not to make use of the university’s services. Many instead opt for private sessions starting at £30 an hour. But is this increased demand indicative of a new issue, unique to our generation? The services now offered by UCL are wider-reaching and more comprehensive than ever before, yet they are still not enough. As a generation, are we suffering with mental health problems more than those in the past? Or do we simply talk about it more and accept treatment more willingly?

Some firmly believe that the huge number of students visiting their GPs for mental health issues are victims of our time. Those born in the 1990s face a set of circumstances unlike those of our parents, our grandparents, or anyone before us. If you happen to have parents who went to university, then you will know that they studied for free: no tuition fees, no student debt! In 1962, mandatory maintenance grants were introduced for all students to cover living costs, and in 1980 these grants were increased to £1,430, today worth around £6,539. In 1989 portions of these grants were turned into loans for higher income students. Students starting university before 1989 would have left with no debt at all; those who started post-1989 would have left owing a few hundred pounds (now worth around £1,000). Comparatively, current UCL students face graduating with debts reaching £50,000. For those receiving the maximum loan this could be even more, due to the recent retirement of the grants system. Could it be that this huge cost negatively affects student mental wellbeing? Maybe we expect more from both the university and from ourselves, and struggle to cope when our expectations are not met. And what about our prospects post-university is that costly degree worth it? Those who graduated around 1993 earned on average 95% more than those with only GCSE’s. In 2010 this had dropped to 85%. Of course this is still a huge proportion more, but some may find themselves questioning whether their time and debt were worth it.

We also encounter other stressors not experienced by our parents: most notably, social media. Multiple studies have found that constant access to social media has a negative effect on the sleep routines of young adults . Other studies, such as one commissioned by the National Citizen Service, found that adolescents (particularly girls) tend to seek comfort from social media and can feel extreme upset when responses do not live up to their expectations. Others also point to the way that users of social media are constantly exposed to a ‘highlights reel’ of their peers’ lives, leaving them with the idea that everybody else is happier than they are. Pressure to be constantly available on multiple media channels also lends itself to a whole new arena for bullying to occur in. This can be a lot for relatively young minds to take on, and it has become apparent that social media has progressed a lot faster than the law and our understanding of its implications.

Many claim our generation is the luckiest there has ever been. We are the least likely to die young, most likely to access education, and we have limitless technology at our fingertips. We also drink less, smoke less, and take fewer drugs than previous generations, as well as having the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy for over 50 years (largely thanks to better education, healthcare and technology). However, rates of depression amongst young people are at the highest recorded level ever. Many argue that this is simply due to increased willingness to discuss our problems and accept help. One (slightly morbid) way of looking at this issue is to assess suicide rates today compared to the past; if more people suffer from mental health problems, it follows that suicide rates should be higher. In reality, the numbers tell a different story. Reports by the Samaritans show that suicide rates in the UK in 2013 were roughly the same as they were in 1986 – around 15 per 100,000 people. There was a general decline until 2007, when numbers began to increase again. In 2013, 15-24 year olds were one of the lowest risk age groups for suicide, with middle-aged people at the highest risk; this trend is also true of 1986. It would be easy to look at these numbers and say that, if suicide rates are generally the same, then rates of mental health disorders must also be the same. However, it is not that simple; perhaps we have more people suffering overall but fewer turn to suicide due to decreased social stigma and improved mental health care. It is becoming increasingly obvious that this is not a black and white matter. In many ways we are far better off than our parents’ generation, and in others, we may be worse off. Due to the nature of the issue, it is really impossible to know how many young people suffered with depression in 1986 compared to 2016 – all we can know for sure is that we are currently suffering a mental health crisis that our society is not equipped to deal with.

So whose responsibility is it? Is it up to UCL to provide free counselling and CBT at short notice for everybody who needs it? Should we be relying on pharmaceutical companies to develop better drugs? Is it down to the NHS to pump funding into more psychiatrists and better talking therapies? Or should we be thinking about preventative methods, how we can shape our society – both within and outside our university – so that mental health disorders are less likely to develop in the first place? Maybe each have their own part to play so that rates of depression, anxiety, psychosis, suicide et cetera actually decrease in future generations rather than stagnating. For now all we can say is that neither our generation, nor that of our parents, have had it particularly easy. Our battles may be different but may be equally as challenging: now we must work out how to better cope with these challenges both as a society, and as individuals.

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