Friday 10 May 2024

The Student Lifestyle: Accessing Support

Callum discusses the student lifestyle and accessing support at University

Callum - Centre for Mental Health

For as long as there have been students, there has been the notion of a ‘Student Lifestyle’. Across all sections of society, including the student body itself, there is an expectation that students must lower their standards for living. Students are meant to be poor, to have low quality housing, and to drink to excess. Moreover, the ‘Student Bubble’ means that students are excluded – and exclude themselves – from the wider community; this absurd way of life is normalised through exclusive exposure.
But what is this doing to our students? And how has it changed in recent times? As a student of 7 years (BSc, MSci, PhD), I have lived as part of a shifting student world. I have seen playful conversations about poor housing turn into desperate fears of homelessness. I have seen social drink-and-drug-use descend into chronic dependency. I have seen inadequate support disappear in its entirety, and people left to deal with their struggles.
It is well established that insecure housing, poverty, and isolation are risk factors for mental ill health. As much as by biological factors, mental health is dependent on social determinants like these. The student lifestyle is not something that is aspired to. Instead, it is driven by unfair employment laws, insufficient renters’ rights, and a tacit institutional endorsement of harmful cultural norms.
These key issues are identified and addressed in the Student Mental Health Manifesto. In this manifesto, Student Minds highlight the societal barriers between students and good mental health. By writing this blog, I hope to echo their sentiment, and explore how these factors have changed during my seven years as a student. Being a student does not exclude you from your right to health; the demands in Student Mind’s manifesto can address these inequalities. A mentally healthier nation for all, must include students too.

When I started university, I found myself in a state of flux. I was, for better or worse, becoming an adult. As for many people, this was a tumultuous time for me. I had moved to a new city - away from my friends and family - to study a subject I knew little about. I was forced into housing with total strangers, for which privilege I had paid more than half my termly loan. I was broke. I was anxious.

This was not my first taste of anxiety. Throughout my A levels, I had been receiving support for persistent mental health difficulties. I was constantly afraid of losing my friends, and of failing my exams. At times, it was debilitating. Without counselling, I would never have been able to go to university in the first place.

This is where the problem lies. Upon starting uni, I was suddenly bereft of such support. It’s not that the university had nothing to offer me. Indeed, I was constantly reminded of the raft of support services which they could provide. The trouble was accessing this support. Both statutory and university services were plagued by massive waiting lists. Moreover, fear of organising my own doctors’ appointments meant that I had been unable to get repeat prescriptions for my antidepressants. With these soon running out, I was plunged into the turmoil of medicinal withdrawal. My emotions were unstable, and my mental health in a spiral.

It took until September of 2022 for me to get on top of my medication. I started university in 2017.

Many students start university with mental ill health. The new environment, and isolation from support networks, can precipitate these difficulties. Moreover, as students transition from paediatric to adult mental health support, the lack of joined-up care can mean that people are lost in the system. This is especially true for students who leave home, and move to a new NHS trust.

This happened to me, and with growing waiting lists, the risks are only rising. There is a false understanding that students are meant to be stressed. That, to learn independence, students must face the challenges of life unsupported. This is a harmful and unsubstantiated assumption; mental health support is important. For people in a new place, and a new stage of life, it is increasingly difficult to access the care they have come to rely on. Accessing talking therapy for the first time can take up to 6 weeks from the point of referral. Between this first contact, and a more comprehensive programme of care, the wait is 62.5 days. That is an unacceptable length of time to wait, especially if the care you have grown accustomed to is suddenly withdrawn.

As outlined in the Student Mental Health Manifesto, more cohesive care is a critical step in addressing this. An intermediary service for young people aged 18-25 could help in the transition to adult services. These services should be equipped to holistically support people with independent living. Moreover, better record sharing between NHS trusts - and proactive outreach to students under new care authorities – will help meet the needs of people in a very vulnerable stage of life.

Like many students, university was my first foray into house sharing. In the summer of second year, I was living in a three-person flat with a tenancy set to renew. The place was a basement, with an overgrown garden and proliferating damp. The rent was rising, and our loans were not. Moreover, we were locked into our contract, and had been since October the previous year. Due to a competitive rental market, and insufficient protections for student renters, we were forced to sign our rental contract a year before it started. This is a fraught environment in which to make housing decisions, and for many people this can backfire. I was one of these people.

At this time, I entered a protracted period of depression. This co-occurred with hostility between myself and one of my flat mates, which created a harmful environment for me. In retrospect, there was no ‘bad guy’ in this situation; we were evidently ill-suited to living together. Unfortunately, because of the way that the housing market worked, finding an alternative living arrangement was near impossible. We could not escape our contract, nor afford to rent twice. We were stuck together, and made each other miserable.

I hear similar reports from other students: stories of people with respiratory disorders, in flats rife with mould; of people who get bullied by housemates, to the point of physical abuse; of people who work for minimum wage, to still fall short of their exorbitant rent. In all these situations, a predatory housing market traps people within harmful environments.

With the cost-of-living crisis, things have gotten worse. Right now, the student maintenance loan is pegged to the predicted rate of inflation from two years ago. Inflation has far outpaced student loans, forcing people to live miles from campus in homes that are barely habitable. Even then, the cost of rent and bills is so high that many must choose between food and heating. Indeed, research from HEPI has shown that, in university accommodation, the average student is left with 50p to live on.

Poor housing is a major risk factor for mental ill health. The ‘student squat’ is not a suitable living environment. As such, it is essential that we build more and better affordable housing, and that existing houses are retrofitted with the kind of provisions that make them safer and cheaper to live in. All renters, including students, should have their rights enforced, and landlords must be held accountable to their tenants’ health and wellbeing. On top of this, for those who must work to support themselves, a real living wage must be implemented as a minimum for adults of all ages. These recommendations, amongst others, are made in the Student Mental Health Manifesto. To achieve equality in mental health, we must act to prevent mental health disorders in all people.

Find out how you can get involved with the Student Minds Blog.

I am enthusiastic neuroscience student (PhD) and policy intern for Center for Mental Health, passionate about using research to change people's lives for the better.  

I am determined to work with researchers to change the mental health conversation, and advocate for fairer and more equitable health policies in the UK.

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