Anxiety, Mounting Debt and Binge Drinking: University Pressure

 

By Jessamy Baldwin

In 2017, going to university is pretty much a rite of passage. As soon as we begin A-levels, we’re coaxed into choosing subjects that will impress on higher education applications. We may have attended siblings’ or other family members’ graduation ceremonies and heard someone say: “It’ll be you next!” Perhaps it’s because we’ve walked past our parents cap and gown photos in the hallway more times than we can remember, and just assumed that one day we’d be up there too.

It’s not just external pressure that’s influencing our craving for higher education however. While some young people are now opting to go straight into full time work after school or start apprenticeship programmes, a lot of us want to go to university because; well basically… we don’t want to miss out. FOMO (aka fear of missing out) is huge amongst the younger generation. I should know – I’ve been there.

But are we, as a society, putting too much pressure on young people to go to and have the ‘uni experience’? While studying for a degree in the UK or elsewhere abroad has many positives, namely academic prestige, the opportunity to meet new people and the chance to live in a completely new place (not to mention the memories you’ll make after 6 jägerbombs on your lacrosse initiation night) – there are drawbacks to consider.

Not everyone likes jägerbombs, for one. But more importantly, it’s downright expensive. While many arts and social science courses cost Guernsey students the same as their UK classmates, clinical medicine, dentistry or veterinary science can entail additional fees of over £10,000. What’s more, in the UK, new graduates who paid £9,000 a year are estimated to leave university with around £44,000 of debt (!).

Then there’s the impact university can have on mental health. We are beginning to realise that stress and anxiety are making day to day life difficult for hundreds of thousands of students. With mounting deadlines, pressures of job hunting and relationships to juggle – all at a young age – it’s hardly surprising. In fact, last year a YouGov survey found that more than a quarter of students (27%) report having a mental health problem of one type or another.

Depression and anxiety were by far the most common reported mental health ailments in the survey. Of those who suffer, 77% had depression-related problems, and 74% had anxiety related problems. Six in ten students said they felt such levels of stress that it interfered with their day to day lives.

I recently spoke with current students and recent graduates about their university experiences. Each of them has learnt many a life lesson – from not buying all the textbooks at once and being independent, to budgeting money and meeting deadlines. However, a common theme within most of these discussions was the prevailing sense of pressure both to go to university and the overwhelming sense of it once you’re there. Mental health struggles are common amongst our student population and it’s time we start normalising, addressing and tackling them.

Evie Wood

University: University of Brighton

Age: 20

Degree: Environment and Media 

“I think there is a lot of pressure to go to university. It is expected of many young people in order to get an adequate job, which simply isn’t the case. I don’t think anyone can prepare you for university, each experience is unique and although you can prepare for it academically, your personal experience of university is completely different to what you expect. I’ve felt pressure to get the best results that I can, due to the expense of uni fees and the cost that my family are burdened with. It’s quite a lot of pressure to do well. There has also been pressure to make sure I make the most of my time. Three years goes so fast and you want to enjoy every minute of it. So there is definitely pressure to take up many different activities and opportunities whilst you can.

I wish I’d known more about how to budget my costs before I went. I didn’t quite understand the responsibility that you have. I wish I was told how to spend my money efficiently and the amount of money I would need to save. It also would have been good to know more about the area – it took me ages to get to know Brighton well enough.

I felt that coming from Guernsey I would be disadvantaged because I’ve never lived in England so I felt really underprepared and wasn’t as confident as I should have been! I wish someone would have assured me that everyone is in a new environment and no one is more prepared than you! Everyone is in the same boat.

I definitely understand why people are suffering from anxiety and stress whilst being at university. It’s a lot of responsibility all at once, it can be incredibly daunting. I definitely stressed out whilst budgeting to live each week- trying to split costs between food, transport and general uni life is tricky. It’s hard to find the balance. I don’t usually stress about upcoming deadlines as I realise that everyone is in the same situation and I try to tell myself that stressing out about won’t achieve anything! There are lots of tutors and course representatives to assist and help you if you need it.”

Steph Bisson

University: Bournemouth University

Age: 21

Degree: Media Production

“I do think that there is pressure from schools to go to university – it seems to be more encouraged than taking other routes such as apprenticeships or full-time work. I know a few people who were pressured into it and ended up leaving before the end of the first semester. I personally didn’t feel much pressure to go to university and my parents made it clear that they would support me whatever I chose to do. I know this isn’t always the case for young people, so I’m really grateful that they didn’t push me towards it and let me make the right decision for myself.

I have written many uni-related blog posts, such as ‘what to take to uni’ and ‘looking for a student house’, in the hope that prospective students can feel more prepared, as I found these really useful to read as a fresher. There’s a lot of information and advice out there, both from people around you and online, but at the end of the day, everyone’s university experience will be different and it really is what you make it.

The biggest pressure I faced at university was to be a typical “fresher”, i.e., drinking alcohol and going clubbing. I’m not interested in that and never have been so I wasn’t swayed, but I did often feel lonely when my flatmates went on nights out and I sat in my room with cake and the Friends boxset. In my opinion, that beats a night out, but I still got FOMO in my first year. I soon learnt to appreciate those quiet nights in though, and I felt happy knowing I was doing what I wanted to do and not what I felt pressured into doing.

It was definitely hard having my family back in Guernsey and as it was so expensive to travel back, I didn’t come home often. I was really grateful to have some family in England so I could hop on a train and spend the weekend with them. But when I didn’t, I found it hard and often felt homesick, especially at the start.

I wish I’d known not to buy so many textbooks and resources recommended for my course, or to buy them second-hand. They were expensive and I used most of them just once. If you need to buy any books, wait until you start your course to make sure you need them and if you do, don’t buy brand new ones!

I’ve also learnt that it isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. There are highs and lows, it can be lonely and stressful. It’s so important to have an open mind and put your wellbeing first so you can pull yourself out of the lows and enjoy the amazing, life-changing experience that it can be.

You also really don’t need to pack as much as you think you need, trust me!

I saw a lot of mental health struggles, particularly money-related ones. Tuition fees and accommodation are extortionate and a lot of students don’t have the time to work part-time – it’s even discouraged by some universities who believe that students should be concentrating on their studies. So it’s tough, and if they don’t have the financial support from parents, it can cause huge amounts of anxiety and stress.

I think it’s really important that universities – and Guernsey schools – have strong mental health support systems in place and that students feel they can talk to someone about it all and get advice. Regarding mounting deadlines, the key is to have a uni/life balance. It’s easy to get caught up in deadlines and assignments and feel like the world is ending. It’s not, it will be okay. I know so many people who forgot to take care of themselves and their wellbeing and caved under the pressures of mounting work. It can be a vicious circle.”

Jean-Paul Baudains

University: University of the West of England

Age: 22

Degree: Business Management with Marketing

“There are lots of alternatives to going to university these days. To be honest university won’t suit everyone, and that’s ok. Some businesses may prefer you to go straight into working for them after school and build up your knowledge in the industry. Still, others may require a minimum of a 2.1 degree. I think it can be hard for young people to know what the right path is because of these contradicting views. The only way to go about it is to do your research and make the decision that is best for you – not your teachers, parents or friends.

A lot of the time, I think people go to uni for the so called uni-experience, which has ups and downs. A lot of the pressures I felt in my first year weren’t academic, but social. In your mind, you have this idea that you need to make an amazing group of friends really fast, and to be honest you are kind of forced to do that since you have to choose your second year house and housemates pretty fast. Then in your second and third year, the work pressure mounts. I also had a pretty full on student job working for Red Bull. I found the job actually made me focus on my work even more though. I didn’t have any time to waste. Essentially uni, like school or when you’re in a full time job I’m sure, is a balancing act. You’ve got to be organised or everything builds up and you crash.

I think it can be difficult for some Guernsey students who have lived on the island their whole life and then they go off to university. It’s probably quite a shock and I know some of my friends found it tough. I had been at boarding school since I was nine years old, so I was used to being independent. That helped me a lot I reckon. I found being from Guernsey also gave me a unique talking point when I started at UWE. It was something a bit different, I felt proud of where I was from and people were always really interested to hear about life in the Channel Islands.

If I had to give any upcoming first year students some advice, I’d say to work consistently. The most stressed students were the ones pulling all-nighters and missing assignments. At the end of the day, you’re there to gain a degree and that has to be your main priority. I think when students first arrive, there should be more induction related teaching on how to cope with juggling the academic and social side of university.

If the first week at every uni was dedicated to giving students tools and techniques on working efficiently, maintaining mindfulness and giving information about where they can find extra support if they need it, it would go a long way. I’d also say to create relationships with your tutors or lecturers. Utilise their knowledge. They are there to help so use this to your advantage. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s also so important to appreciate your time at uni. Step back, take it all in. And above all push yourself and get out of your comfort zone.

In terms of mental health, unfortunately I did see quite a few students who were struggling. I think it’s becoming the norm, which is sad. But I also think it’s great we are starting to create more awareness around the topic. Money struggles and homesickness combined with work worries, a new environment and social anxiety – it can be tough. People can feel alone. In my view, a problem shared is a problem halved. If you do start to feel this way – tell someone. Chances are they have felt the same at some point. It’s totally normal. People tend to bottle up their feelings and try and Google the answer. We’re a self-diagnosing society who sit on our phones and share our problems on social media. It’s not healthy and nothing replaces a real conversation. Get outside and use at least one hour of each day at uni to do something you love too. For me, that was surfing in Wales, playing football or going skating. When you get out of your small, worry-laden space you start to notice the world around you. It makes you feel better.

Ellis Fox

University: University of the West of England

Age: 20

Degree: Filmmaking 

“I think these days the pressure is off to go to university. My understanding is that people used to go to university to get the head start that a degree would give them, but these days I know more people with a degree than those without. This means having a degree is no longer a boost as they’re a dime a dozen. As a result, people are thinking of more unconventional approaches to finding a career than just by using a degree. I think it’s fantastic! To be honest, if I didn’t want the “uni lifestyle” I probably wouldn’t have bothered doing it at all.

At university, when you’re on your own, you know it. Independence isn’t something covered in a curriculum, or something you can learn from a book.

My biggest pressure was motivation, I’ve always been a “do it in my own time” kind of person, and when you’re juggling the day to day activities of real life, it’s not long before you realise if you don’t have structure, and motivate yourself to stick to that structure, then you’ll fall behind in some aspect or another, be it socially, academically, romantically etc.

I wish I’d learnt to cook more than just pasta and pizza. I’d also like to have saved more money – it runs out quick!

I’m lucky enough to be a relatively stress free person but plenty of people around me struggled with mental health problems, it seems like the most important thing is to have a healthy and balanced lifestyle. “Everything in moderation” is a good quote to remember.

Anonymous

University: University of the West of England

Age: 21

Degree: Information Technology Management for Business

“In my youth, the only path that was talked about amongst my family was “university”, and becoming either a lawyer or doctor – my mum and dad always used to talk about. This in itself pressured me to attend university in order to live up to my parents’ expectations if you like.

Being an only child my parents did all they could to prepare me for university.  They bought me an abundance of stationery, drove me around the country to view open days, and discussed potential options with me. They didn’t attend university, so in a sense their advice was limited to how they thought they could help. As for school teachers, I guess they do and don’t help you prepare. In my experience, I wouldn’t say they go out of their way to help you – unless they like you a great deal – but they always would offer help when it was really needed.

When I started university, I didn’t know what to expect academically. I was thrown into the deep end with work that was foreign to me such as programming and working with databases. I excelled in some areas of my course and didn’t in others.

The social aspect of university is a must. Moving out of ‘mummy and daddy’s’ house and comfort bubble taught me not only how to be independent, but it made me realise who I was, what I like, what I dislike etc. I suppose there is a social pressure to be involved in the parties and fun activities going on. It’s kind of mandatory that you integrate with people inside your block, outside your block and on your course early in order to build up connections.

My anxiety was a problem throughout university – it went through the roof.  I would be wary of submitting coursework late or worry that it would be substandard. I experienced massively heightened stress due to mounting deadlines.

Finding things that I enjoyed and loved doing was crucial to my sanity. That was sometimes as basic as having a lavender diffuser in my room or exercising every other day. To keep my anxious brain at bay, I would often attempt to complete coursework well in advance. The debt surprisingly never fazed me. Welsh students like myself pay a third of what English students have to pay. Being away from home and missing out on the luxuries of home living was initially weird, but as students, you quickly adapt to your surroundings.”

Will Hirst

University: University of Waikato

Age: 22

Degree: Business Management

“I feel that if you want to become established as a professional in your industry there is pressure to study rather than complete apprenticeships Etc. There’s a lot of pressure from secondary schools I think.

Parents can prepare you by teaching you valuable life skills such as washing and cooking. Likewise, siblings can offer previous experiences and helpful tips about certain areas of university and how best they did certain tasks study. Teachers can only get students to understand they are going to need to be self-motivating in order to achieve the grade they strive for.

I can defiantly see mental health problems arising at university. I think there needs to be better financial help for those who are very dependent. University course deadlines would have been a lot easier to take without the finical deadlines as well. There needs to be more advertised assistance in order to learn how to budget and to overcome stresses that some students have never had to face.”

Libby Morgan

University: University of the West of England

Age: 21

Degree: Geography

“I feel it’s almost a given that you go to university in the present day and you’re sort of deviating from the norm if you choose not to, so in that sense I feel that there is a certain amount of pressure. I remember in sixth form the onus was definitely on the student to achieve academically so you could go to university, as many think this is the only real way to get ahead in the world and that if you didn’t want to go you were in some way disadvantaging yourself. I have to say I was very lucky that my parents were completely supportive of my choices, they obviously wanted me to have the best possible chances I could in life. However they also understood that university wasn’t the be all and end all, they didn’t pressure me and the choice to attend was entirely my own.

I don’t think anyone can truly fully prepare you for what lies ahead. In all honesty I can’t really remember much of the advice that was given to me. You have to learn a lot for yourself.

Academic pressure was by far the thing that I found most challenging when I started university. The need to achieve whilst at the same time having all these new distractions is certainly tough. I think you sort of learn to deal with it better as time goes on. Having good flatmates and good friends definitely helped, as did having some sort of outlet such as sports so by third year whilst obviously, the work load was tough, I felt a lot more equipped to deal with the pressure.

I wish I’d relaxed a bit in my first year. The universities don’t expect you to be model students and it doesn’t count towards your degree. The uni experience is meant to be fun as well.

More often than not things don’t go as planned- you may have had a set idea in your head of what everything will be like and how everything will go but that rarely happens and that’s fine, go with the flow and don’t stress if things don’t turn out the way you thought they would, often something way better comes from it. Something that people often don’t talk about it that it can be boring at times. It’s not all parties and lectures 24/7, you get way more free time than you expect so be prepared to spend time by yourself. I would 100% recommend joining a club or sport.

I think I was quite oblivious when I started uni to all of the pressures that can build up. I think that as I got older I started to notice more, be more aware of other people’s mental health as well as my own and I did see that some students were facing these issues. I do have to say I was incredibly lucky that the university I went to was very in tune to people’s mental health from day 1, they have amazing support systems and people you can speak to if you feel like you can’t deal with the pressures. For example, they gave out free herbal teas, apples and info/leaflets on how to deal with stress and what to do if you can’t cope outside of the library in the busiest exam months. However, I know this is not the same experience for many of my friends who have attended some of the older more prestigious universities, I think there the emphasis is really that you have to get on with it yourself, a mentality which I feel needs to change. At the end of the day no grade is more important than your well being.”

This article (1,2) appeared in The Guernsey Press on 24 August 2017.

 

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