Making the Invisible Visible: The Challenges of Mental Health in University Life

John Chacksfield FRSA, MSc, DipCOT, PGCE

The last 12 months at Canterbury Christ Church University saw a significant awakening to inner values and oft-hidden issues. Not only were Black History Month and LGTB History month promoted extensively and successfully, but the often-avoided, frequently stigmatised issue of mental health was raised. Mental health awareness at the university seems to be at an all-time high. This seems to be the result of the establishment of two things:

  1. A new student society at the student union called “Student Minds”, which is a campaigning society based on a national template and supported by the national Student Minds organisation.
  2. Local initiatives such as World Mental Health Day, a new radio show on the subject, on CSRfm 97.4, the student and community radio station, and the exciting University Mental Health Day in March.

University is a stressful time for undergraduates, who are often experiencing the reality of living away from home for the first time and dealing with many ‘real-life-stresses’ that they may have been shielded from before. According to Student Minds, the average incidence in mental health issues in university is probably one third; higher than the general population incidence of one in four. In 2011 the Royal College of Psychiatrists estimated that for students the incidence is 29% and approximately 4% of students see counsellors for a variety of mental health issues. Student Minds suggest the actual figures may be higher. They identified ten challenges for student mental health and found the top priorities for both students and staff were:

  1. Fear of being judged
  2. Stress
  3. Finding the confidence to tell people you have a mental health problem or are struggling

Other problems included loneliness and other difficulties with disclosing mental health problems. The RCP study found that debt and financial problems were significant factors in increased stress among students.

In a radio discussion with Christchurch Student Minds president, Matthew Axbey, he mentioned that often the first ports of call for a student who is suffering will be their friend or their tutors, however lecturers and other staff are poorly equipped to manage mental health issues among their students. Matthew feels all staff should be trained in immediate help strategies for the student under their care. They are the staff that students often know best and trust.

Axbey is taking action to address this. He has already convinced the Student Union to elect a mental health officer on their board and he is in the process of setting up a Nightline telephone support service. This will be run by trained student volunteers for the benefit of students. Christchurch Student Minds, under his leadership, has established University Mental Health Day for the first time at Christchurch University.

The author of this article runs a radio show on CSRfm, the local student and community radio station for the Canterbury area. His show, Mindscape, focuses on the many and various aspects of the mind, but also focuses on raising awareness about mental health. He often features interviews and discussions with guests on the subject of mental health and stigma. You can listen to Mindscape every Thursday evening from 6-7pm locally on 97.4fm or online via the radio station’s website at The show was set up so that talking about the mind and mental health is a “normal” part of discussion. Mental health has often been stigmatised as weakness or something to be feared, and probably because we are unable to see it. At least with a physical disability, there is something to see and which instantly gives a reason for certain types of behaviour.

For post graduate students the issues are similar but the stage of life may present different challenges. Often these students are older and may have families to manage as well as their studies, they are often required to lecture as well as study and many work part-time to maintain income. The intensity of higher level degrees can be more than undergraduate studies and there is often greater emphasis on independent study. American studies have found high levels of mental health problems among graduate students (Breines, 2015). The top three issues in Breines’ article were:

  1. Uncertain career prospects
  2. Isolation
  3. Financial difficulties

Other issues included chronic failure of studies and poor work-life balance.

So what are the solutions?

It appears that many of the suggestions forwarded by authors of articles and experts are about opening up discussion and ensuring mental health and stress are topics that are seen as part of conversations that lead to both awareness and solutions. Open discussion in meetings, training of senior academic staff, lecturers and tutors is a large part of this. Awareness of the Health and Safety Executive’s regulations and standards around stress in the workplace will also go a long way to help create positive change. General transparency about issues, such as mental health crises at universities are opportunities for discussion and awareness-raising. Clear promotion of support opportunities and solutions is very useful, particularly if combined with active outreach towards students who are at risk.

It seems that many universities are starting to be more open about the hidden issues of stress and mental ill health in academic life. Canterbury Christ Church University is making considerable strides towards this, however there is always more that can be done.






About the author:

John Chacksfield is currently a full-time PhD student within the Health & Wellbeing Faculty. Before this he was a mental health occupational therapist and manager for several years. Contact him via


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