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Mental health in universities: One student's story

Barely able to breathe, overly conscious of your surroundings and shaking uncontrollably; this is the day-to-day reality for 20-year-old Hayley Townsend. She suffers with Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), this is anxiety that causes the sufferer to have obsessions and compulsions about their physical appearance.

She struggles with her morning routine and getting out of bed some days, she goes on to explain: "I have to start getting ready at least three hours before I have to be anywhere. And even then, I'm always late".

She adds: "Even if the smallest thing is out of place or doesn't match then I cannot leave my room; the worst time was when I was in a shop and saw my reflection in a mirror. My bra strap could be seen where my shirt had moved, I had a panic attack in the middle of the shop it was so embarrassing."

She said: "Being at university only makes it harder, I feel like I am always being watched. The only place when it is just me is in my room. But if I have to leave my room I have to make sure that my outfit is perfect and that can take at least 45 minutes to an hour. The stress of work and studying on top of the BDD is like having an extra layer of anxiety on what is already there. It's like having pins and needles in the back of your mind all day every day and sometimes it makes me feel like leaving university. I ask myself why I do it and if it's worth all of the panic attacks and depression."

Miss Townsend discussed how she thinks that there is a stigma surrounding mental illness, she said: "I don't tell anyone that I have a mental illness, it's not something that I want people to know. I just assume that they will judge me and see me differently because of the title of mental 'illness'."

She further commented: "There is a stigma surrounding mental illness, whether people like it or not, it is better than it was but you still see people purposely doing things that avoid mentioning it. I've had someone not stop to talk to me in the street because they don't want to risk 'setting me off' in public."

Hayley isn't the only student suffering with an anxiety disorder, the New Institute for Public Policy Research analysis found nearly five times as many students as 10 years ago disclosed a mental health condition to their university.

The Annual Student Experience survey shows that the stress of studying is a key area in which students struggle, with 59% reporting that this made it difficult for them to cope. Other issues that were raised included isolation (44%), balancing work and study (37%), financial difficulties (36%) and living independently (22%).

Credit: Annual Student Experience Survey

Media sociologist Dr Lesley Henderson conducted a study on how TV writers balance their research to create authentic storylines and how they then mix the characters with this to entertain the audience. One of the key issues Dr Henderson found is that the broader issues such as the role of medication, treatment and recovery, get side-lined.

“It is still very much a medical model presented in mainstream soaps and drama,” said Dr Henderson, who lectures at Brunel University London.

“Mental health services have far more complex and varied ways of helping people in distress, than we typically see on TV. What we see on screen is a very narrow perspective on mental health. There’s very little shown of community-based solutions and the wider context of managing mental distress in everyday life."

She discusses how the fictional characters usually get "stigmatised or labelled" with the main issues being attributed to the individual rather than the setting around them. The study also found that mental illness is often linked with criminality and violence and that is a problem.

“The wider context of the ongoing struggle over medicalisation, treatment and recovery is often absent,” Dr Henderson notes. “These perspectives offer an alternative vein of story-telling that could broaden our understanding of the social meaning of suffering and help challenge the stigma that many people in distress still face today.”

We asked Brunel University's counselling service about how many students come to them with issues, Student Councillor Peter Eldrid, said: "At Brunel University London, twice as many students seek counselling than they did 10 years ago, yet student numbers here have not risen during that time. We may well have improved our outreach and successfully raised awareness of how important it is to seek help as soon as things begin to feel wrong."

He added: "It is too easy to blame young people for not being resilient enough to cope with social media as the apparent cause of an increase in mental health difficulties. But these concerns need to be balanced against other societal changes. In my view, although there’s still a long way to go, it is more ok to say how you feel, to be open about your sexuality or to find groups you identify with. These things can all help to reduce the incidence or severity of mental health difficulties."

Hayley's advice for those that think they do suffer she has this message: "Do not sit in silence and think that you are 'bothering' anyone by just talking to them. Don’t think that your stress isn't as bad as someone else's, stress is comparable to your own situation. But please always go and speak to someone whether it’s a friend or a lecturer or a councillor, just find someone you can speak to and you'll feel so much better."

If you do feel as if you suffer from any form of stress, anxiety or simply need to talk to someone here are some places you can go:

Brunel University London Counselling Service:


Call the Student Support and Welfare Team on 01895 267045

Mind (Hillingdon) – Mental health charity


Phone: 01895 271 559



Phone: 116 123


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