• Greg Caine

BLOG POST: My Mental Health Experiences at University

Updated: Jun 3

This post was originally published in March 2017.

During ‘University Mental Health Day’, the university I recently graduated from joined many others by tweeting about ‘the elephant in the room’, mental health. This led me to remembering my own experiences with the mental health support system during my time at university, and how badly my friends and I were failed by them. So I decided to write about my own experience in the hope that others will follow suit, with the end goal to change the way universities, particularly my own, approach how they care for their students. Not only that, but my aim is to encourage others to speak out in order to help decrease the taboo surrounding mental health and suicide.

The first three months of our first year transpired like many others: large amounts of socialising, lectures and alcohol, and small amounts of sleep. Many of us were having our first taste of life away from home, with all the independence and empowerment that brings. But with all that comes pressure – the pressure to make friends, manage your money for the first time, and achieve good results, all while conveying to everyone at home via Facebook that you’re having the time of your life at uni. With all this piled onto a fresher’s shoulders at once, it’s no wonder many of them start to struggle with the stress and anxiety of it all.

I would suggest that the mental health problems that this pressure (amongst other factors) can cause are far more common than we think. It took me a lot of reflection and frank honesty to admit to myself that I’d struggled with this. I would’ve never admitted at the time, that for a lot of time during those months I was struggling with anxiety – because I was scared of what others might think. The taboo surrounding mental health, depression and suicide is real and is severely debilitating to people who are struggling and feel ashamed of the fact.

Then, over Christmas, I lost my friend to suicide. I can’t assume to know the thoughts that were going through his head. Speculation as to what exactly goes through someone’s mind during a time like that is pointless – unfortunately we will never know – but I do know that the university, in some capacity, were aware of the risk to his life and failed to do anything about it.

After we’d been informed of his death, we were told that every step would be taken by the university to make it as easy for us as possible. We returned to our university halls a week earlier than the other students, and on the day we had all agreed to return, we had a meeting with the ‘Coordinating Chaplain’, who was responsible for helping students deal with bereavement. The early signs were positive: he told us that we were in good hands, there was a structure in place to deal with these situations, and that everything would be taken care of for us, from automatic ‘mitigating circumstances’ to transport to the funeral.

In the days following, I went to speak to the chaplain, who had informed us that we could make an appointment and skip the sometimes 2 week long (!) waiting list.

In that first meeting, I came away feeling encouraged, knowing that whenever things got difficult we had someone to go to who was trained in dealing with our situation. Unfortunately, it went downhill swiftly afterwards.

The next couple of meetings with the chaplain, whom I had to book an appointment with each time, ended in me being redirected to a counsellor on a different campus, a 20 minute bus away.

Why wasn’t there a counsellor at our own campus, the largest at the university where over 1000 students lived at the time? If there was, why weren’t they available to me?

After two sessions with the counsellor, I stopped going. From the communication I was having with my lecturers, it quickly became clear they hadn’t been informed of what had happened. So I had to return to the chaplain and ask for mitigating circumstances, which we had previously been promised were automatic. I found this extremely difficult to do and I know others didn’t do it themselves.

I also know that I was one of the only ones to go to counselling, and that was because I actively sought it – the university wasn’t proactive in encouraging us to get help in any way.

The chaplain travelled with us via minibuses provided by the university to the funeral. During the wake, we were all spending time with our friends’ family and friends, trading stories and having a nice time remembering him. We were then ushered away, despite our protests, because we had to be back in Cardiff at a certain time. We’d barely been at the wake an hour.

After I stopped going to counselling, I heard absolutely nothing from the university. I felt I could no longer seek out the chaplain after having been told to go elsewhere and the counselling itself was ineffectual. My anxiety and depression had heightened to a point where I was finding it to be an ordeal to leave the flat, and I was suffering with nightmares and insomnia. It took months to start to recover from this, and all the while I heard nothing from any of the staff at Cardiff Met. Even towards the end of the semester, I found myself having to go and explain to several of my lecturers the reason behind my absences.

In retrospect, I still can’t believe that they weren’t informed. For the rest of my time at Cardiff Met, I received no communication or any sort of follow up from the university support staff or lecturers. If this is the way the university deals with students who have just suffered bereavement, and as such are at a high risk to mental health problems themselves, it is no wonder there are so many deaths by suicide in universities, and that the number is increasing. Students need more support and this is a fact.

I am so grateful to having my friends during this time, who were the only support group I had at university. I am confident that without them I’d have dropped out of university all together.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you’ve had a similar experience, I urge you to share your experiences to help bring about a change! It’s OK to talk.