By Isabelle Lepine, Second Year Politics and French
As the days get shorter and the nights get colder, the festive period becomes the focal point in nearly every aspect of life. The intensity of this time of year often brings joy with its variety of festive events, however, with so much emphasis placed on socialising, many students experience exacerbated fears of social exclusion.
With a plethora of festive activities to get involved with, from society Christmas formals to student household Christmas dinners, in conjunction with essay and coursework deadlines, it’s no wonder the winter period is overwhelming for many. Yet, the mental wellbeing of students during the festive period is seldom spoken about.
'[L]oneliness and experiences of winter depression are often accompanied by thoughts that those who are suffering are weak'
Research conducted by Mind suggests that a third of people (36 per cent) are too embarrassed to admit they are lonely at Christmas. Whilst feelings of loneliness and isolation are often associated with the older population, the age group most likely to struggle with loneliness at Christmas is reportedly 18 to 24-year-olds.
To make matters worse, according to the 2020 Health and Wellbeing report, 41 per cent of students are diagnosed with a mental health problem whilst attending the University of Bristol. For many, the winter period can mean the onset of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sometimes referred to as ‘winter depression’. Whilst the exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, according to research conducted by the NHS, symptoms are often linked to reduced sunlight exposure during the shorter autumn and winter days.
Given that so many struggle during the festive period, it might be surprising that loneliness and experiences of winter depression are often accompanied by thoughts that those who are suffering are weak or that their feelings are invalid.
'[W]ith students heading home to an already potentially tense household, many are left feeling nostalgic for simpler childhood pleasures'
Speaking to a second-year law student on the matter, she described the winter period as a ‘double-edged sword’. ‘You have so many good things going on, but there is so much pressure to take part in everything,’ she explained. ‘I have to go home next weekend for a family event and am already feeling panicked about missing out’.
With these contributing factors in mind, how can we battle the added pressures placed on our mental wellbeing during Christmas and into the New Year?
Combatting loneliness & looking after your mental health is most important for students staying at university over the Christmas period. Take a look at our top tips! 🎄 https://t.co/T1HShwePWm #UniHomes #Christmas #MentalHealth #Students— UniHomes 🏡 (@UniHomes) December 14, 2022
Being a student comes with a multitude of expectations and responsibilities, with many becoming well practiced plate-spinners in order to balance all aspects of their lives. Therefore, it is important to put in place some lifestyle measures to ensure a strong maintenance of your mental wellbeing. Preventative activities such as getting as much natural sunlight as possible, exercising regularly, and managing stress levels by practicing mindfulness are recommended by the NHS as paramount during the long winter months.
The University of Bristol has a range of support available to students to help cope with any mental wellbeing concerns. The University website provides accessible resources, ranging from self-management and self-help options to emergency and out-of-hours contacts details for those requiring immediate support.
'[T]he cost-of-living crisis in the UK has left families facing stark choices and increased financial stress this Christmas'
However, a second year English Literature student who has accessed the mental health services at the University expressed the view that more needs to be done to protect students' mental health, particularly during these months of increased feelings of social anxiety and exclusion.
Detailing her experiences to Epigram, she said: ‘I think it’s really evident the University could do more to support students. I think the problem is that there are so many members of staff within the health services who don’t communicate with each other, so every time I reached out for help I would have to re-explain my situation to someone new. It felt impersonal and uncomfortable which ultimately added to my stress’.
On top of the national pressure placed on students during these icy winter months, the cost-of-living crisis in the UK has left families facing stark choices and increased financial stress this Christmas. Wages are falling, inflation and interest rates are rising, and families are left grappling with pennies to bring the magic of Christmas to children and pay bills. And with students heading home to an already potentially tense household, many are left feeling nostalgic for simpler childhood pleasures. The result? Increased stress levels and wavering mental health for all.
According to research conducted by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, a startling two thirds (66 per cent) of therapists say cost of living concerns are causing a decline in the mental health of the population. With costs rising, the first things to go, according to their figures, are activities which have been proven to benefit mental health, including sports club memberships and therapy sessions.
In light of this national struggle, one solution suggested by the association was to be honest with your loved ones about the concerns, as sharing the burden may lighten the overall pressure. Another solution might be found in releasing the tight grip consumer culture has over Christmas. Remembering instead the value of festivities are found in time spent with family and friends, as opposed to money spent out of pocket. Get creative this winter to bring the magic of Christmas back into play.
Mental health ebbs and flows throughout the year, but at a time of Christmas cheer we must remain mindful of those who are struggling. Reach out to friends and family, maintain community spirit, and reduce pressure on yourself and others around you whilst enduring these winter months.
Featured Image: Epigram | Edward Deacon
You can access mental health and wellbeing support from the University here.