The best three years of your life?

Student depression is a misunderstood condition, says

Picture this. It’s a Friday evening. A group of students are clattering around their flat, making dinner, excited about going out later that evening. It’s noisy, everyone’s talking, everyone’s having fun. But there’s one student in the kitchen who feels the opposite. She can put a brave face on, and can laugh and drink and enjoy herself along with everyone else. But deep down, all is not as it seems.

The rate of student depression is above the national average. In a 2003 study conducted by the Mental Health Foundation, it was found that 12% of male and 15% of female students suffered from clinical depression whilst at university, compared with one in ten of the general population. More recently, since the introduction of tuition fees the number of students seeking counselling has risen by 20%. It was estimated in 2005 that one in four students will suffer from some form of mental distress whilst at university.

Rebecca*, 20, a student at York, explains her experiences of this debilitating condition. “There’s this voice in my head sometimes and all rationality goes out of the window. When I’m in a certain mood it completely takes over me. I feel like it’s not even me anymore.

“I feel overwhelmed and I feel like I don’t know what to do with myself. It sort of feels like a panic attack, but it’s a lot more sustained. It will last for days.”

Gareth*, 22, a student at a Welsh university, was diagnosed with clinical depression in October 2008. “There’s a split personality. Sometimes you feel like you can climb Everest; sometimes you feel like you can’t climb out of bed. There’s always this self-doubt in your head telling you you’re wrong and you’re going to cause a nuisance to people. Your self-esteem is zero, no matter what people tell you. They could tell you you’re the best person in the world, and you wouldn’t believe them.”

Clinical depression is different from the downs that most people feel. A sufferer will experience intense feelings of anxiety, negativity and helplessness, combined with a general lethargy and lack of interest in everyday life. It can tear families apart as they search for a cure for a condition which has no physical manifestations, but can take over a person’s character and completely change their personality.

For Rebecca, the problem developed after failing to get into her top choice universities. “Academia was always a respite. If I was having emotional difficulties, I could say, ‘it’s OK, I’m doing really well at school and I will be really successful in my career’, and that was completely diminished. I’d always been quite a confident person and I felt like my confidence had completely been destroyed.”

Gareth partly attributes his illness to his circumstances when he started university. “I haven’t moved out of my hometown and I lived at home for my first year. I’ve never felt like I’ve fitted in at university at all.”

He describes how he changed as the illness took hold. “I went straight from being an extrovert to being an introvert. I’ve never had any trouble making friends, but at uni I just couldn’t be bothered. I started ignoring my friends and I broke up with my girlfriend of five years. Before I was diagnosed I just thought I was going through changes, I thought it was natural until people told me I needed help.”

He has been taking Prozac since being diagnosed and may be on it for life. “It controls the mood swings. It makes you feel better and it makes everything seem a bit more real, but at the expense of emotional output. You become an emotional zombie.” Do the benefits outweigh the negatives? “It helps that my depressive lows are not as far down as they were, but that’s at the expense of sometimes feeling any highs. It creates a middle ground.”

Both found that going to university exacerbated the situation. Gareth found the transition from schoolwork to a degree very difficult. “The pressure to make deadlines can be overwhelming. But I wouldn’t say that there’s a pressure to succeed in university. If anything, the attitude among some students is completely anti-academic.”

However, humanities student Rebecca struggled for the opposite reason, feeling that there was not enough focus on academic work. “There’s not enough pressure, you’re not constantly taken care of. The fact that I have so much time on my hands means I have to have a degree of self-worth. With humanities you’re put into a cycle of laziness. The more you think about it, the worse you feel.” And so few contact hours makes things worse? “Definitely.”

It is interesting to note the different reactions between Gareth and Rebecca to the academic side of things at university. Rebecca, a high-achiever who had expected to excel, has found the university system, with its emphasis on individual study, difficult to adjust to, which triggered her problems. In contrast, Gareth attends a mid-table university, and after not doing as well in his A-Levels as he had hoped, found the work too challenging. There is no overwhelming reason for student depression; it can strike for many different reasons.

Gareth was immediately deferred from his course after his diagnosis. “The year out, if anything, made it worse. The instinct of a depressive is to lock themselves away. It feels like it’s you against the world. No matter how much you think ‘I don’t need anybody else, they don’t like me’, you need other people. Cutting yourself off makes the problem even worse.”

There’s a stereotype of a student as someone who has a very fun life. For a depressive it’s the exact opposite

After previously enjoying an active social life, he gave up all his recreational activities. “I was out nearly every day of the week, with or without a trip to the pub, but when the depression took hold I gave up nearly everything. I felt that everything was getting on top of me and it was all too exhausting, both physically and mentally. My confidence had completely gone and I just couldn’t face people.”

His story becomes harrowing to hear, as it becomes clear just how much the condition affected him. “Another instinct of depressives is to run away from the problem and that’s when rationality goes out of the window. I was on holiday in London last year and I had a nightmare which freaked me out so much that I had to go home. I had to go across the city at about 3am, take the Tube then wait for a train home which cost £80, when I had a return ticket for the next day. It made sense to no-one I was with and it didn’t make sense to me, but I was in such a state that it seemed like the only thing to do. I didn’t know why I did it, but I did. That’s the perfect example of irrationality.”

If untreated, the problem can become all-consuming, sending the sufferer into a spiral of self-loathing and desperation, and the consequences of this can be fatal. Gareth explains: “At my lowest point, I was considering suicide. There was one point where if my housemate hadn’t come in to check on me, perhaps I wouldn’t be alive today. That’s how low you can get. You’re not in your right mind. If you asked me now, ‘do you want to die?’, of course I don’t. It’s an altered state of mind.”

As depression and other mental illnesses continue to become more common amongst students, the demand for counselling services has risen. But Rebecca is sceptical of how much support they can really offer. “I’m quite cynical; I don’t see an objective counsellor as someone who can help me. I feel like I need to talk to someone who understands the situation and understands me. I often talk to my housemates, but I do sometimes feel like they are a bit sick of it. I hate putting pressure on people to listen to me and I don’t like putting a weight on other people’s shoulders about my emotional problems. I think that I have to learn to respect and trust myself before I go to a counsellor and trust them. I don’t know if I’ll ever go.”

Gareth did make use of his university counselling services, although he describes the experience as tricky and feels lucky that he managed to get an appointment straightaway. “I was told that there was potentially a three month wait for subsequent appointments, which made keeping to a routine very difficult. Universities have a responsibility in these cases, particularly as students are paying to be doing these courses. They have a duty to provide the best possible facilities.” Do you feel like that’s the case at the moment? “No.” It seems that the support network for students with depression is not as secure as it could be.

However, he did feel that counselling helped: “I found it much easier talking to someone who didn’t know me. There are certain things that you wouldn’t want your friends or your mother to know, but if you’re talking to someone anonymous in complete confidence, you can be as honest as you want. I found getting everything off my chest and knowing what was wrong cathartic, but I was looking for an instant solution, and there wasn’t one.”

But is it just a problem now? Do they think that once out of the university bubble, things will improve? Rebecca doesn’t think that she will feel better once she graduates. “The end of uni is such an elusive concept. I used to think that as I got older, and as I met new people, things would be better, but more recently I have been really anxious about the near future. I think that the older I get, the worse I’ll become. I have the fear that the older I get, the more I’ll think that all the ambitions and expectations I have won’t ever be fulfilled, and that’ll make me feel even worse.” Has uni proved that? “Definitely. When I leave here I’ll probably feel exactly the same.”

Gareth hasn’t thought that far into the future. “But if you’d asked me this time last year how I would feel now, I would probably have said I’d feel much the same way. And that’s not true; I’m feeling much, much better. When you’re depressed, recovery takes a long time and you can’t predict it. But am I feeling as good as I was before? No. I’m not sure I ever will again.”

There is something of a stereotypical view of a depressive: someone who has always been withdrawn and hard to relate to. But Gareth warns against making judgements. He doesn’t think that certain people are more prone to depression than others. “I think it can genuinely happen to anybody. It could happen to the happiest person on Earth. It’s something that can be triggered and it could happen to anyone. No-one should think they’re immune, because they’re not.”

Meeting Rebecca, in particular, you would never guess that she is depressed. She leads an active social life, is involved with societies and always seems to be busy. The stereotype of the depressive who sits in their room all day and cuts themselves off from the world does not always ring true.

Gareth concludes, “all my friends who’d already been to uni were bigging it up, saying it was amazing, the best three years of your life, but for me, they’ve turned into the three worst.”

Is there a stigma attached to student depression? “Definitely. There’s a stereotype of a student as someone who doesn’t do much but has a very, very fun life. For a depressive it’s the exact opposite. Depressed students are a forgotten people in society.”

There is so much pressure to convince the outside world, and even yourself, that you are having the time of your life during your university career. But for more than a handful of students, this is not the case.

As much as all the drinking and partying might suggest otherwise, university is part of the real world and things will never be as perfect as we expect. It is only once this is accepted that attitudes will begin to change towards student depression.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

15 comments

  1. Reading the article yesterday I had never read something so cringe worthy in my life. After 3 years at the university I know by now that the standard of the newspapers is not top notch but this was laughable. I have suffered from a manic bipolar disorder since I was 14 and even been in a nuthouse from time to time.

    The thing that really gets to me is that you say that depression among students is on the increase. Well it may be but you have to look at the flip side of the coin and say it is now more acceptable to be thought of as depressed than it was 10 years ago so more people either think that they are when theyre feeling down etc.

    Prozac… might as well be called a sugar cube. If you are diagnosed with that then it might aswell label you as a depression wannabe. I will happily swap my condition with their’s any day sop the offer is open =P

    ‘Meeting Rebecca, in particular, you would never guess that she is depressed’ – I forgot how everyone who is depressed goes around with a sign around their neck with a large red D on it. What an idiotic remark.

    I could go on and on about this but I dont see much point.

    Bottom line is… there are more attention seekers outt here who think being depressed is cool rather than actually being depressed. For a start the students you probably mentioned are probably arts students who have f-all on in their timetable to university in terms of workload will not be a factor.

    I could give you lists of what medication I have been on within the last 6 years and it makes normal anti-deps look feeble. These two people mentioned in the article have it easy compared to some. I would have thought Nouse might have been able to find a student who actually has a decent level of depression… or wait… why would we want to talk to someone about it when we dont like who we are in the first place?

    People with depression dont have to be introverted either. Also you mentioned how an extrovert became an introvert from just coming to Uni, hmm so let me think… that couldnt be possibly anything to do with being overshadowed by someone who was more extroverted than he was use to so looks introverted in comparison?

    Grrr, Im going to stop having a rant. I guess you tried to do a decent job, just a lot of flaws in it. Its a good job the majority reading it will take your word as gospel isnt it (Y).

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  2. ‘I would have thought Nouse might have been able to find a student who actually has a decent level of depression’

    James, as much as I feel for what you’ve been through, this comment seems insensitive to the divergent needs and experiences of sufferers of depression. It’s not a competition, who has it worse off. I’ve never come across someone who acts depressed because they think it’s ‘cool’, neither is thinking someone an ‘attention-seeker’ a legitimate reason for dismissing their distress: shouldn’t we be getting to the bottom of why someone feels that way? What is going on for them to feel like they need attention? Ok so there are going to be people more negatively affected by depression than the people in the article, but Rebecca & Gareth’s experiences are still pretty intensely awful from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have depression. And, after all, this is who the article is aimed at: raising awareness of depression amongst those who have little or no contact with it.

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  3. isn’t claiming to be worse off a classic sign of depression.
    I think its really harsh that your claiming that these people are attention seekers. Depression has a variety of levels and yeah just because its not the same as yours doesn’t mean its less ‘valid’. My mother suffers depression and if you try and tell me shes making it up because because its not a manic bipolar disorder then your wrong. Withut fail wrong. I would have thought you would have ahd a little more sypathy.

    Depression isn’t ‘cool’ and i dont think anyone thinks it is ‘cool’. I knew a person who was depresed last year and he didnt think it was cool, yet it wasnt a manic bipolar disorder.

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  4. James’ dismissive tone is neither fair nor helpful, but he does raise a point that is worth thinking about. The two people interviewed for the purpose of this article are both on the positive, almost fully-functional side of the depressive spectrum. This of course doesn’t mean that their input is not valuable or that they don’t ‘qualify’ as having depression; that’s just unfair and inconsiderate. However, it is also worth keeping in mind that many other people with this condition are in a far, far worse situation and could only dream of doing things such as getting to a top university or being able to maintain a five-year relationship. This is something that we ought to remember when discussing this issue.

    Depression’s root cause is now understood to be largely biological. Countless studies have clearly demonstrated that, in depressed patients, various brain areas have fundamentally altered activity, which in many complex ways affects their ability to experience emotion. This is not just an inconvenience that you have to put up with, or a character flaw that leaves you prone to mood swings, as many people often assume. In many cases, depression can be a life-crippling condition that leaves people physically unable to experience emotion.

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  5. I was diagnosed with depression not long ago and am taking prozac and I can assure you I’m not ‘attention-seeking’. It has really been affecting my social and academic life; I sometimes spend days on my own in the dark. I have only told my two closest friends. I am sorry about your much more severe condition but it is no reason to dismiss mine.

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  6. My mother suffers depression and if you try and tell me shes making it up because because its not a manic bipolar disorder then your wrong. Withut fail wrong. I would have thought you would have ahd a little more sypathy << I wasn't saying that, just that a lot of students confuse stress, tiredness, sadness with depression and the doctors are told to give something for it and quite often there is barely any of the anti-dep stuff in them.

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  7. 25 Feb ’10 at 2:02 pm

    All I'm reading is blahblahblah

    I understand where James is coming from, but it is all relative. Just because someone hasn’t been diagnosed with bipolar does not mean that they are not suffering. Mental health issues are different in every person; we can probably all agree that there is nowhere near enough funding or research into it. But ultimately, you shouldn’t dismiss other people’s sufferings just because they’re not on the same scale as your own. Self harm, suicidal thoughts and feeling so down you can’t even face getting out of bed are common amongst people who are depressed, and I don’t think that they are necessarily attention seeking factors, do you?

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  8. 26 Feb ’10 at 6:58 pm

    (Another) Anon

    I didn’t appreciate some of the wording used in this article – “If untreated, the problem can become all-consuming, sending the sufferer into a spiral of self-loathing and desperation, and the consequences of this can be fatal” – Although depression often feels like a black pit behind you that you’re about to fall into, this sentence, and many others, are a tad sensationalist, and even sound as if they are intended to be fiction at times. However, I understand that the seriousness of this topic is a difficult one to write about for a non-professional writer.

    I have considered applying for counselling at the university as I have had bouts of depression for much of my teenage life (and even though they are bouts, and not constant, James, they should still be taken seriously. I won’t compare myself to you), but the idea of waiting for three months puts me off. How about a well-reseached article on student support services? If there’s a problem it should be highlighted, and if not it’s advertising a vital service to the student population.

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  9. 27 Feb ’10 at 7:17 pm

    Internet freak

    You’re all being really harsh towards James’s comment. Depression + Bipolar disorder can be horrific illnesses and the amount of self-centred people who convince themselves that they’re suffering from them just because they aren’t particularly happy is disgusting.
    Articles like this do nothing to raise awareness. By suggesting that depression can be caused by not getting into your first choice university completely trivialises and undermines those who are genuinely sick.

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  10. 28 Feb ’10 at 4:13 pm

    (Yet another) Anon

    I’ve been living with clinical depression for the past 3 years and a lot of what is written in the article is accurate and certainly not sensationalist. It is important to realise that mental illness is unlike physical illness in that people exist on a spectrum. James is clearly close to one extreme however clinical depression (which is significantly different from bipolar disorder) can be just as damaging. The causes of depression are unconnected with the severity. Not getting into my first choice university was a contributing factor for me and I got so bad I was close to being sectioned.

    Clinical depression is as serious a health issue as cancer. Under the right circumstances, it is fully treatable and people can move on. If left unchecked, the smallest triggers can lead to severe conditions that can and do kill.

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  11. Yeah, the trivialisation of these conditions is ridiculous. Depression has on many occasions (though definitely not most, I hasten to add) led to suicide and to do anything but treat it with the utmost importance is not taking it seriously.

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  12. 1 Mar ’10 at 10:17 pm

    Ernie Goldberg

    really good article Liv, i think you’ve really captured something here that for most people is quite difficult to understand. depression is such a difficult topic to come to grips with and i think you did a really good job. i usually only comment on nouse to flame about henry james foy and adam shergold (seriously i hate those guys), but i felt i should comment to just say “well done” :)

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  13. 2 Mar ’10 at 2:19 am

    Gernie Eoldberg

    Hey Ernie, your comments are embarrassing. Get on with your degree.

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  14. James; how is it one of my closest and best friends suffers from severe depression and anxiety (both clinically diagnosed so not attention seeking just in case you decided to dismiss her), yet she manages not to be an arrogant, self obsessed idiot like you? I am curious about one or two things; “a decent level of depression” what exactly is meant by this? Surely any amount of mental illness is enough? Having the audacity to claim people are attention seeking then writing things like “I could give you lists of what medication I have been on within the last 6 years and it makes normal anti-deps look feeble”. I’m sure you could give us these lists but please don’t.

    Commenting on this article is your right as a reader, the same right allowing me to retort, but the tone of your comment irritated me immensely. Almost as if you were assuming a position of superiority over the author and over other people with mental health issues.

    It seems I am echoing some other points here that your comment was insensitive and unnecessary. Trivialising someone’s genuine illness because your own is ‘worse’ is idiotic and I would have thought that someone who suffers as you do would have more sympathy for anyone who suffers. You have no right to say what is a “decent level” or not. No matter how much you may think you do…

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  15. 3 Mar ’10 at 1:52 pm

    Ernie Goldberg

    gernie – nice one. so what are you? a foy-shergold enthusiast? or just a dickhead?
    it’s not embarrassing to let someone know that they’ve written a really good article. it is embarrassing to waste your time telling someone to get on with their degree. irony much?

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