When I was trying to find a theme for this column, I spent ages looking for something that I really felt passionate about, until I realised it had been staring at me right in the face; positivity. Yes, that itself is pretty vague, but hear me out. After a few drinks I often end up ranting about the deteriorating mental health of university students caused by prior misconceptions of what university entails, social media, and heightened pressure leading to stress and depression. Thus, I wanted my column to be completely positive; a silver lining on the bleak cloud that university can often be.
There is an evidently growing mental health problem within universities. Student suicide rates have increased by 56% between 2007 and 2016 and several news outlets such as The Guardian and Financial Times have correctly labelled it a “crisis”. I know that QMUL’s counselling service is busier than ever just by talking to one of the counsellors. But I feel like no one really addresses why this crisis is happening. A lot of people blame the stress of deadlines and the workload, but I think it runs deeper. I think a lot of it is loneliness and the un-fulfilment of “the university experience”.
With the introduction of tuition fees, university became a commodity to be sold to us students, the consumer. All of a sudden university was advertised as not just a place to learn, but an “experience” in which you will “have the best days of your life”, “make life-long friends” and essentially have a three year party. To a load of young 18 year olds considering their future options, the idea of fun, partying and friends is a very strong selling point. Hence, freshers go into university expecting these qualities to be fulfilled, seeking the “university experience” which has been so often advertised.
What no one really tells you is how lonely university can be. And why would they? Would any consumable product advertise its negatives? A lot of university, especially the first few weeks after freshers week dies down, is just sitting in your room bored, homesick, and wondering why you aren’t having the 24/7 fun that was expected. This might be manageable if social media didn’t allow us to compare ourselves to friends from back home, who seem to be having the time of their lives on Instagram and Snapchat. Seeing these posts no doubt makes you feel even worse; you may ask yourself why everyone is else having such a great time, whilst you actually just feel homesick and kind of miserable.
But it’s easy to forget that social media is, frankly, one big fat lie. People post what they want to show their peers, not the reality of their situation. I’ve spoken to plenty of people who, just from viewing their Instagram, appear to be having constant fun and making plenty of good friendships. But in reality they’re bored, not really enjoying their time and haven’t found “their people” yet. So here we have a vast majority of the student population all lying on their social media, but simultaneously convinced that everyone else is telling the truth. No wonder mental health amongst students is deteriorating; they believe something is wrong with them, that they are the problem, whilst everyone else is having the time of their lives. This, on top of homesickness, the overwhelming burden of independent learning and having to adjust to a new city, no doubt sends freshers into an emotional frenzy.
I guess this article has been pretty bleak considering my initial discussion of positivity. Ultimately, the purpose of this piece has been to try and reassure any student that feels out of place, lonely or simply unfulfilled by university that they aren’t alone in feeling so, and certainly aren’t wrong to feel this way either. It is completely normal to feel like this, because frankly, the expectations we had going in were blindingly unattainable. We were sold the dream, and social media convinces us that everyone except us is living it. So don’t blame yourself, you’re completely normal. Simply lower your expectations of what university should be and rein in your comparisons on social media; you’ll find yourself living a happier, more content life.