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Opinion | Mental health must be prioritised over our idealised perception of success

Where success at and after university has been a driving factor in declining mental health, Victoria Pope addresses the actual needs of students today.

By Victoria Pope, Third Year, English Literature

It’s no secret that going to university comes with new pressures and expectations. From increased workloads to the minefield of trying to secure a graduate job, these challenges of course take their toll on students. However, rather than being expected to embrace these challenges with ease, perhaps it is time to examine how the pressure to succeed impacts mental health.

University is a place that inherently encourages the idea that, if you work hard, you can succeed. Whilst motivation to perform well is crucial, this focus on academic performance of course comes with its challenges for students. Whilst grades are important, the pressure put on students to reach those top marks and excel in exams can lead to serious stress and disappointment when things don’t go to plan. With intense exam and deadline seasons, the mental health of students begins to plummet.

The pressure to succeed is often particularly felt by students in the final year of their studies, as the race to secure a graduate job and get a step on the career ladder can often lead to unprecedented levels of stress. With the graduate job market more saturated, competitive and complex than ever before, many students can be left feeling worried, filling out what seems to be endless applications and often receiving several rejections before they secure that perfect role. Whilst we are constantly reminded of the importance of planning our post-uni future, maybe more time needs to be spent realising the pressure this can inflict in the present.

If stress within the student population wasn’t already prevalent enough, following on from a global pandemic and a shift towards online learning, students today find themselves even more isolated than ever before. With some students still receiving minimal contact hours with their lecturers and peers, it can be even harder in 2024 for students to make friends or reach out for help when they need it most. As research shows that 92% of university students have experienced loneliness in the last academic year, it is no surprise that academic pressures are being felt now more than ever. 

The issue of loneliness is even more significant in a setting where, aside from its academic pressures, the social life associated with university is so heavily celebrated. In what we are told by our parents and peers are supposed to be the ‘best years of our lives’, many students who suffer from loneliness or negative thoughts can often feel like they are missing out, or even failing to have the ‘proper’ university experience. Whether students are struggling to find their ‘people’ who they enjoy socialising with, or simply prefer a night in to a night out, the so-called student experience of drinking and clubbing isn’t for everyone, and unfortunately this can often contribute towards declining mental health. Even for those who do engage with the stereotypical student activities of drinking and partying, the expectation to simultaneously maintain high grades and succeed academically is often unrealistic. Therefore, often as students struggle to maintain this lifestyle, they begin to suffer from stress in not just their academic work, but also their social lives.

These pressures, of course, can lead to serious consequences. In 2020/21 mental health conditions reported by students were nearly seven times as high as a decade earlier, marking a serious decline in the wellbeing of students post-COVID. Depression amongst students is on the rise, and, worryingly, in the most extreme cases so is suicide, with a notable rise in cases from previous years. Students today also often suffer from anxiety and extreme stress. In an environment that promotes ‘hustle culture’ and places value on academic success, when students begin to struggle this is can often be felt deeply.

Unfortunately, many students struggle to reach out for help when struggling with their mental health. Research by Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a suicide prevention charity, and The Tab found that just 12% of respondents think their university handles the issue of mental health well. With this lack of trust in systems put in place by universities to improve mental health amongst students, many are left feeling isolated and continue to struggle during their time at university. 

With all the pressures put on university students today, both societal and academic,  perhaps it is time to reduce the importance placed on success and instead create an environment less obsessive over exams and assessments, and place emphasis on supporting those who may be struggling with their mental health during their time at university.

The University of Bristol's wellbeing service is available if you are struggling with your mental health. Visit:

Featured Image: Megan Ioannides

Have societal pressures impacted your outlook on success after university?