A struggle that can be all-encompassing, sometimes crippling and all too often hidden – mental health is perhaps the most pressing concern among young people in Bristol.
The figures paint a stark picture, with a recent YouGov survey indicating that 27 per cent of students are affected by mental health issues.
But statistics fail to show the extent of a problem that is all too often suffered in silence and campaigners are calling for urgent action to combat a growing epidemic among young people and fight the stigma that still surrounds mental health.
Bristol-based support service Off the Record (OTR) has seen a dramatic rise in young people seeking help for mental health problems – up from around 400 in 2010 to more than 3,000 a year today.
The charity’s clinical director Dr Niklas Serning says that to look at the issues young people face in terms of mental health, however, is to miss the real problem which, he says, is societal.
“Giving young people more resources is one thing, but we have to re-frame the issue from a mental health perspective to a bigger picture,” said Dr Serning.
“We have created a world that doesn’t provide space for young people to be happy, that puts intense pressure on them and makes it hard for them to have hope for the future.”
OTR aims to use therapeutic techniques such as counselling and creative, art-based work, to empower young people to challenge the wider social and structural inequalities that lead to poorer mental health and life chances.
Commenting on the rise in cases, OTR’s Liam McKinnon said: “The numbers increase year on year. It’s positive that young people feel able to reach out for help, and they are increasingly doing so, but it also makes it starkly apparent the prevalence of young people out there who are struggling with something.”
Freelance writer and photographer Ailsa Fineron dropped out of university because of her struggles with mental health issues.
She believes that lack of education and a failure to intervene earlier in schools is a big part of the problem and says people have to be at crisis point to get help and, even then, often do not get the support and skills required to continue in recovery.
“My first struggles with mental health issues were in my early to mid-teens,” recalls Fineron.
“I developed an eating disorder, in retrospect to cope with extreme moods and various other scary new life things that felt out of my control. Any description of an eating disorder can only fail to capture how all-encompassing and pervasive it is.
“I think I knew it was an issue probably from fairly early into it, but didn’t begin to address is until I was 20 and my mood disorder had caught up with me.”
Fineron, who now works for Rife Magazine, only sought professional help because of the support and encouragement of her family and close friends. She says her journey has been a huge struggle, but taught her a lot about self-awareness and the importance of empathy.
Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy has pledged to take on “the unacceptable lack of progress in tackling young people’s mental health” and is calling for more Government funding.
But universities themselves are also making efforts to step up to the mark.
UWE recognised urgent action was necessary two years ago when the number of students reporting mental health problems was increasing by 20 per cent year on year.
Glyn Williams, UWE’s senior wellbeing practitioner, said they tried to “think outside the box” and sat down with students to discuss what could be done. This led to a peer-assisted programme and the development of a unique self-help anxiety app.”
“The millennial generation struggle in different ways to others,” said Williams, who uses experience of trauma management in his military background to apply to his current role, and said the issue is certainly one that needs addressing urgently.
The University of Bristol’s student counselling service works with more than 500 students at any one time and offers a GP-led service with same-day mental health appointments for those in need of urgent help.
Against a backdrop of growing concern about student mental health and recent tragic deaths in Bristol, the institution is planning to invest an additional £1m a year to introduce student wellbeing posts.
Adele Wills, president of student mental health society, Peace of Mind, is critical of the “tiny percentage” of young people who are able to access help compared to the many who are suffering with mental health issues.
But she feels there is hope in the fact that people seem to be opening up about wellbeing and credits the “fantastic work” of charities such as Time to Change in combating the stigma of mental health.
“Mental health services are always the first thing to be cut which, frankly, is diabolical,” added Wills.
“Lack of funding means that waiting lists are ridiculously long and that services cannot cope with demand, and if you’re at crisis point a waiting list is not what you need. The support is usually there, but whether it has the capacity to meet demand is an entirely different question.
“A good friend of mine was waiting 13 months before she finally received support for surviving rape and domestic abuse, and that was after her attempting to seek help for three years.”
The university’s student newspaper, Epigram, has been a leading light in trying to raise awareness of the problem and fight the stigma associated with mental health through its #14Conversations campaign.
“Mental health is clearly a pressing issue at university,” says Epigram editor Ben Parr. “Looking back, one of the things I find most surprising is the lack of education and awareness about the importance of mental health taught in schools before university.”