It’s not finals you’re worried about. Okay, maybe a bit – but for the most part, students in their last year are thinking about just one thing: their employability. You will not be in full-time education forever and, now that the end is nigh, you’re all too well aware of it. Graduating with £50,000 of debt behind you and no job ahead is not what you signed up for when you ticked that UCAS box.
As mental illness numbers in universities continue to rise, we discuss how to combat this onslaught in one of the most anxious periods of your life.
Why finalists are at risk
Affecting 25% of the population at any one time, mental health issues are hardly uncommon. A 2013 study showed that 20% of students considered themselves to have some form of issue, and that’s probably a conservative number. And recent employment issues are only making things worse for pre-grads.
It is easy in final year to feel overwhelmed. Your work suddenly matters, your professors are cracking down on you and deadlines are no longer just a ‘social construct’ – they’re your degree. Not only this, but your early twenties are when on-going mental health issues are most likely to raise their head. Plus, with the prospect of ‘Reality Blues’ around the corner, nobody can blame you for feeling a bit stressed.
The fact is, university is not reality; it is a microcosm, tuned to the needs of its students and teachers, and closed to the outside world. When you see that net approaching, ready to scoop you out the fishbowl and into the sea, it’s easy to feel worried. The problem comes when that worry spirals – into something altogether more sinister.
Recognise the warning signs
Most students enter university with a minimal understanding of mental health issues. In this article, we’re dealing with two of the most common: depression and anxiety.
So. How to tell if you or a friend is at risk? Read the signs.
First up: social withdrawal. "If you've been feeling anxious in a way that's stopping you from doing the things you would normally do,” says Beth Murphy, of mental health charity Mind, “if you're not going to lectures, if you're not socialising, and if you've been feeling that way for more than just a couple of bad days – that's the point when you might want to see somebody.”
Notice that your mate’s staying in more and chatting less over lunch? Maybe it’s just revision, but keep an eye on him. It’s better to make a mistake than to not be there for someone in trouble.
Next comes confusion. Depression and anxiety are physical as well as mental afflictions; they can ruin your concentration, make you clumsy and seriously affect academic performance. Changes in appetite, sleeping patterns and alcohol/drug consumption are other classic signs of inner changes. Weight loss or gain can signify more than a new exercise regime; eating disorders are serious diseases that affect over 725,000 people in the UK, and are intrinsically linked to depression/anxiety conditions.
Learn the symptoms and act. It may seem boring now, but your awareness could save a friend in need. And remember: although depression is more likely to affect women, both genders are seriously at risk. In the period 2010-15, the number of men approaching counselling services at Edinburgh and Glasgow doubled.
Know what to do
Getting yourself out of the ditch of depression – or, perhaps worse, disordered eating – is near-impossible on your own. You have to speak to people, be it your family or your friends or a nameless voice on the end of the phone.
If, like most, your university counselling service is over-subscribed, try calling a friend whenever you feel unwell. If you feel you have nobody to confide in, no problem; there are plenty of third-party support services out there. Organisations like Samaritans and Nightline are there for people like you, and your GP will know the best ways to combat your illness.
Don’t allow yourself to self-isolate. Try to force yourself outdoors or, if it’s your mate in trouble, insist on sitting in with them. Leaving someone on their own during a bad episode of depression is not only unwise but actively dangerous. Engaging in music, craft or sports activities – anything, really – will give you reasons to get out in the morning. Medication is not always the best route to ‘better’, but it can certainly help.
If you’re walking around town, look up. Check out the buildings, the sky, the greenery around you – whatever. It will get you out of your own head, and help you realise that there is more to life than job applications.
Finally, remember to keep things in perspective. Leaving university is a vulnerable time, whether you have a job or not. The movement from clear deadlines and structured fun to surviving in the real world is difficult for everyone. Weirdly, you should draw comfort from that.
So repeat after us: I am not alone…
Inspiring Interns is a graduate recruitment firm which specialises in sourcing candidates for internship jobs and giving out graduate careers advice. To hire graduates or browse graduate jobs London, visit our website.