STUDENT mental health is one of the biggest taboo topics when it comes to issues affecting university and secondary school students across the UK.
A paper by Higher Education Policy Institute ‘thinktank’ says that student mental health problems are ‘bigger than ever before’, and universities are being asked to almost treble the amount of money spent on the support they offer for mental health.
Jessica was just 15-years-old when doctors finally diagnosed her with chronic insomnia.
Now at the age of 21, she is studying at Manchester Metropolitan University and wants to bring attention to the issue that can affect over one in four students at a university.
As most 15-year-olds begin Year 11 with the stress of GCSEs, Jessica began hers stressing over whether she would finally be able to sleep that night.
After three months of being unable to sleep, she finally sought professional help.
A year earlier, she had been achieving straight As in all of her subjects at school but as she entered her final year of GCSEs, Jessica found herself only managing to get up to two hours of sleep every night: “It started off when I was 15. I was staying up later and later and then getting up at 6 o’clock every morning” she told me.
Jessica suffered from a number of symptoms and even after finally taking a big step to talk to her parents about her lack of sleep, time still passed without a diagnosis: “After three months of not sleeping we went to the doctors to see what their medical opinion was and we found out if you don’t sleep for the amount you need to it’s classed as chronic insomnia. Any more than two weeks of sleeping two hours less than your normal amount of sleep is classed as severe insomnia.”
“The doctors don’t like saying a 15-year-old girl has insomnia, it’s not well known or common.
“I don’t know how I felt. At first, they wanted to check that it wasn’t an underlying issue so I had a couple of blood tests so I was tested for diabetes and thyroid and they tested me for around five different things.
“When they came back negative, saying there was nothing physically wrong with me they told me that I could just require less sleep than others, but I was tired. If I didn’t need as much sleep as other people I would be functioning and taking things in but because I couldn’t, I assumed that it has to be insomnia. It can’t be anything else.”
At the third visit to her local doctor surgery, Jessica had an emotional breakdown after feeling emotionally drained from the number of visits.
“I saw a new doctor and just burst out crying, which didn’t help at all.”
As she was finally diagnosed with insomnia, Jessica felt relieved knowing that she could finally look into it and begin to understand what she was suffering from.
Due to her age, however, there was very little that could be done in order to help her:
“They can’t give you sleeping tablets unless you’re over 18. They were just like, try the tablet and the herbal remedies and chamomile tea but they weren’t helping at all.”
Jessica was left to deal with insomnia with natural remedies, however very little worked for her which left her frustrated.
This frustration left Jessica only being able to get a mere one hour of sleep on some nights, compared to the recommended eight hours that she needed.
The lack of sleep soon began to affect her emotionally: “It was hard. I went through a time when I thought my family didn’t like me because I was sad, I was grumpy, I didn’t want to be a part of anything and it’s hard not being able to sleep and being tired 24/7.”
Her constant tiredness, and feeling isolation saw her close off from family and friends due to her constant tiredness: “I tried to not let it affect me as much as I could but there were days when I just felt so tired. I had to take days off school because I was just too tired to go in. I tried to not let it affect me but it always did.”
Schoolwork was approaching a crucial stage for Jessica and that was an even bigger weight on her shoulders. Her lack of sleep was resulting in her finding it hard to concentrate in lessons and exams: “I remember one time, I didn’t sleep at all through the night and then I went into school and I was tired, I was grumpy and I just did not want to be there. I wasn’t taking anything in and it was just before my English mock exams. The teacher was talking to me and I just could not take anything that he was saying in.”
However, concentration wasn’t the only thing that Jessica was concerned about happening in school.
“I fell asleep in quite a few Maths lessons as well. The teacher was my tutor though so she was like if you ever want to talk, I could go to her.”
Falling in sleep in lessons was all too common for Jessica resulting in her not getting the most out of her education.
As exams approached Jessica became anxious over how her lack of sleep was going to affect her exams.
She began to suffer from panic attacks which now added to all the stress she was already feeling.
‘Special consideration’ is usually offered by exam boards to students who are at a disadvantage due to unavoidable circumstances.
AQA specify on their website that special consideration can be given when ‘a student is fully prepared for the exam but is disadvantaged due to illness or unavoidable circumstances beyond their control at the time of the exam or when they complete their coursework/controlled assessment’.
The issue was that Jessica felt undeserving of any consideration.
“I was thinking, this is a reflection of what I know now. I felt like I didn’t deserve consideration for what was happening. Because it’s mental you feel like it’s more your problem. If it had been a thyroid or something physical I probably would have considered special consideration.”
As she was suffering from a mental illness Jessica felt like it was self-induced.
She was unable to recognise that the mental illness was unavoidable in the same way that a thyroid or a heart condition would have been.
The stigma behind mental illness is that they differ from physical illnesses as they’re seen to be easy to avoid.
They are, however, similar to physical ones in the way that they equally can’t be helped.
Due to the current stereotype within society, many are reluctant to acknowledge student mental health as a serious issue.
Society still remains in the dark when it comes to student mental health with knowledge of symptoms and causes being a hazy subject and something not many people understand.
“The way I looked at it is that you can be physically tired or mentally tired and for me to get to sleep I had to be physically and mentally tired and when I was getting up I was physically awake but not mentally. I would get into bed and think “I’m tired, I’ve been tired all day” and then my mind would wake up.
“My body would be completely exhausted. It’s hard going through two different states and not getting enough for either.”
“You can’t explain it, a lot of people were telling me “just close your eyes and just don’t think about anything” but it’s hard when you’re there for hours and you’re just not getting sleep at all. I tried about seven different herbal things and it’s difficult to explain what was going on.”
Jessica didn’t want to discuss her mental state due to her being scared to admit to anything being wrong.
“I didn’t want it to be well known which I know is stupid and I should always tell people but at the time you just want to keep it to yourself. If no-one knows then there’s nothing wrong with you.”
As Jessica began to approach her 17th birthday she finally began to settle back into a more normal sleeping pattern.
“I began to get happier with myself as it started to get better,” she says.
Insomnia is a mental illness which many people will often forget, as Jessica’s mental state began to improve so did her sleep cycle.
Following her own experience, Jessica spoke to us about what she would advise to others with student mental health problems.
“Go to the doctors, because they’re not going to do anything that will harm you, they will only act in your best interest. Talk to people, it doesn’t have to be family or friends but just talk to someone you trust.”
Although Jessica’s story took place six years ago she is still keen to bring awareness to the fact that mental health isn’t just an uncommon issue for students but something that they shouldn’t be afraid to talk about.
“After I got help it felt like I was beginning to make a big improvement just by talking.
“If I hadn’t spoken to someone I think I could still be suffering now and not have done as well with exams and university as I have now.
“I know a number of students still feel embarrassed about talking to someone but in my personal experience, talking was the start of getting better.”
Student mental health is beginning to become more recognised within society, however, with stigmas still attached to it, people are reluctant to speak.
Jessica found it hard herself age 15 to share her story but now six years on, with university exams looming Jessica gets the sleep she once craved so badly.