• The Lens Blog

The student mental health epidemic that is soon upon us

Brother and Sister, Vietnam

Something I think all ‘millennials’ can all resonate with in today’s technology driven society, is that if we weren’t able to keep up to date with social trends, optimise our internet time and even just be able to use a computer. Not only would we be unemployable for the jobs we as graduates generally seek after university, our social lives would be pretty boring too! Who doesn’t love endlessly scrolling through travel pictures on Instagram, long fully wishing they had the same life of someone they follow. Or spending hours before realising that YouTube has just automatically played through a playlist of dogs doing the funniest things without you realising. Throughout my own struggles with mental health, I started to recognise the epidemic that is soon about to hit us with depression and anxiety. Specifically, in students that are growing up in the technology and online boom that is the norm of today's daily business and personal activities.

Before you can understand the severity of the epidemic we are about to face, first you need to understand what I believe to be the average graduating student in terms of susceptibility to mental health symptoms. I suspect my judgment of the average student to be fairly accurate, as I was once one myself. Not necessarily from a privileged background, both financially or academically. Holding a strong desire to be involved with social groups such as friendship and sport. And just like every average male sports student out there, the want to please those social groups with your ability to consume alcohol in what can only now be described as excessive amounts, just to prove your masculinity or feel the emotion of acceptance. You combine the above with a humans first time living away from home, where there are no parents to decide whether you can have a bacon sandwich at four in the morning. Whilst considering that same human is having to balance the success of their degree, the expectations on them from family and friends. More importantly the time has come to be led down an academic path that will shape their future career, which they soon realise is the final hurdle in the societal norm timeline until you hit retirement age. It’s a lot for any human to have to consider all these pressures individually, let alone together for the average student of today who now has to face the pressures that come with social media; and they aren’t all positive.

School Children, Vietnam

Countryside Living, Vietnam

So now you have a general consensus in the conditions of these average students, that account for about 80% of the student population at undergraduate level. It’s important to highlight how those negative choices (positive at the time), can have such a detrimental effect on their health and life as they know it. As I discovered not so long ago, nutrition and attention to diet was one of the biggest factors that I could control that would see the biggest change. As I spent most my university days either working hard on assignment that I had neglected, due to sport or friendship commitment that just had to take priority; you needed the comfort food to accompany you in completing the task at hand. It was either that, or you were still hangover from the evening before and your headache still needed nurturing. Either way taking a trip to your local supermarket involved a basket full of cheese, dairy and sugar. Now i’m all for treating myself when in times of need these days, the reason sugar consumables were first invented was to give us short bursts of energy when we needed it. Just the same as caffeine, if you drink it at the right times. It’s all about moderation when it comes to nutrition, but I can certainly confirm moderation was not part of my shopping list vocabulary back then. Especially not when you would rather save money on your shopping bill, so you can save for a night out you have planned in four weeks time!

So these students come to that moment and complete their three or four years worth of ‘studying’, for a degree that they don’t really know how will help them in their next career step. Simultaneously, they have been living the life of Riley and will soon be heading back to living with their parents again. I mean, how many students do you hear graduating with enough money for a mortgage these days? This shift change in itself is a difficult situation to manage. You are having to balance the expectations of your parents in terms of your career choices and progression. Living back under the same roof with the same people, yet this time you are dependable on yourself. Quite soon after graduating these students will feel an onset of prominent depressive emotions, which is completely natural given all they have experienced and what their current snapshot of life they are experiencing now. After all, the chance of your life resembling the same position again, where all your best friends all live within a few minutes of each other is a depressive thought for anybody to comprehend.

Dad's Taxis, Vietnam

Mum's Taxis, Vietnam

So once that summer of final freedom is over, and you start to feel normal again. Those graduates go get a graduate scheme job that they almost all have never dreamt of. Because let's be honest, no one had really ever thought about graduation the whole time you were at university. You were so so engaged with living in the moment, and creating such unique and life changing memories. That the thought of it eventually ending was a distant memory, forced to the back of your mind that you wanted to avoid. Meanwhile you have subconsciously and without you even knowing it, you have entered into a corporate ladder in an industry that may, or may not be associated to your degree. That decision forced by societal norms that when you graduate, well you are meant to go get a job of a graduate level right? You sign a contract to fifty hours a week, because you’ve been so depressed you’ve spent no time researching whether fifty hours is just expected of a new graduate. Then for numerous reason over the next eighteen months, influences happen and you end up working seventy hours a week. Over time you never fall into a state of consciousness where you can’t begin to entertain the idea of even questioning whether this was acceptable for a twenty three year old kid. Cue the long-term depressive symptoms to settle in, which is only natural for the majority of this average graduating student population. The severity in symptoms is really where this breaks away from the average student concept, because everyone’s experiences to that point are unique to themselves. More importantly, their ability to stop and recognise their emotions and evaluate how to make themselves better again. I wasn’t so lucky to begin with, but in recognising now that it was a problem back then for me. I wanted to share that experience in hope it may help others, because some people may never even recognise this feeling at all and suffer without even knowing!

If you were a fly on my bedroom wall during this time, it wouldn’t of been so interesting i’m afraid. All you would find is someone staring at the ceiling for hours on end, with the odd break of that so I could stare at my phone because it is something different to look at during your insomnia. Alternatively, you may have found someone so tired from the insomnia that I would actually be asleep. It seems pretty boring from the outside in sure, but inside my head were racing thoughts at a hundred miles an hour. Before I had chance to give myself an answer for a question I had thought of in my head, I was already asking myself the next question. Repeating in circles, for hours on end, every day, again, and again, and again. Those breaks from the ceiling staring were hardly all that beneficial either. Finding myself scrolling through social media platforms to try and distract myself. Then one day I had a revolating moment when I was lying there scrolling, that no one ever posts online in a visual representation i.e photo, to show how shit there life is at the given time they upload it. They are first to share their life when everything is perfect, but as we get older we accept that nothing ever is forever. A caption might give a hint to the way they feel, but we are becoming so lazy with social media that we only ever see the photo and take value from just that. If I post a photo of a beautiful sunset, but the caption read “I feel suicidal today”. Without reading the caption, how many people would still give it a like? That was the whole point in why I started @thelensblog in the first place, to make people read further into an image.

Vietnam War Vetran, Quảng Ngãi

School Boy, Vietnam

From that moment of realisation moving forward, I placed myself on a social media lock out for a while and just concentrated on being happy with whatever I needed to be happy. Rather than, considering to post something in order to keep up with societal trends with people my age. I know this happens because I have close friends who I am lucky enough to have open and honest conversations with, and they have told me they have posted somewhere online for those reason, and those reasons alone. In that recognition, I swapped my personal instagram feed to my photography profile which I still do today. It’s been an awesome platform for me to vent how I am truly feeling in both words and photos on a daily basis, whilst maintaining consistency between my in person and online self.

Remember I am one of few that will recognise these depressive symptoms, of which those few are diluted again by those that will recognise and are then able to financially support private counselling. My sport background I believe also played a vital role in my battle. With regards to my competitive nature and will power to wanting to find the reasons and fix them. So many others will stay in that depressive state for sometimes years, in certain cases the rest of their life. It’s sad to think now that one in four of your fellow best friends during university will have encountered these feeling since graduating. You wouldn’t wish it upon your worst enemies! When you look at things from their side of the table, the numbers are not so diluted with success of overcoming the symptoms either, and with mental health in the UK is a growing concern.

Sunset With Friends, Đầm Cầu Hai

Farmers Girl, China

My point here is twofold; firstly we need to manage how we use social media. Secondly we need to manage our expectations of how we are interpreting it. Managing how we use it is easy; first ask yourself if you spend more time on your phone each day, than you do engaging in a face to face conversation - if so, change it! The internet offers a lot in terms of being able to educate us on all those weird and wonderful facts we love to share in our WhatsApp groups. But we can learn the same and much more just by listening to someone speak. Bill Nye once said “Everyone you will ever meet, knows something you don’t”. If you’re listening skills are not up to scratch, you will miss that one important thing that they are able to offer their expert advice in. Social media for me started in the MSN and MySpace days, when you had to ask your parents if you could disconnect the house phone to use the internet connection. Your day back then consisted of being at school all day with your friends, then going home and being with everyone of them online all evening. It’s not changed much now either as we have just upgraded the equipment we use to interact with them, though we have increased the amount of people we can track at one time. Meanwhile whilst our interests grows in other people, it places subconscious pressure on your own life and the raising of questions such as “should I be doing that?” or “I wish that was me!”. You then start to manage your time on social media accordingly around what you think you are expected to be doing, rather than what you want to actually be doing. That leads me perfectly onto how we need to move forward in how we interpret social media.

Social media is no longer just a place to post a status on Facebook with ‘is at college.’ like the good old days is it? We’ve come a long way since then, with Facebook selling people’s data for their own financial gain, and Snapchat developing an app so perfectly aligned for those seeking a mischievous other without their partner ever knowing. Ok it wasn’t intended for that purpose originally, but we live in a world where that is possible today. These technologies have been developed and released for public use with no consideration to the serious detriments that it is having on daily lives across the world. It made me beg the question that if they are not able to control it, who is? The answer … me and you! You have to take the control and take time to learn and understand how it is negatively affecting you. I’ve done just that, and here I still am embracing social media as a positive tool. But I see it in a whole new light these days and a light that so many others may never experience, as they are prevented through mental health disadvantages that have been heavily influenced through social media in the first place. Jeremy Hunt a gent that gets a lot of heat in the press, and for good reason with his inability to materialise evidence of successfully acting on the promises he makes. Another promise of his that I was at least glad to be see raised, was back in April 2018 (article here). He rightfully publicly framed his thoughts to global tech giants on the risk of social media to mental health in youth, something I strongly support. He requested a meeting with Mr. Zuckerbeg in the coming months, of which not even a representative from Facebook was sent in replacement. What profound evidence this is from Facebook et al companies, in their inability to care about your health. It places the emphasis on those who need to be in control ... you!

Friends By The River, Vietnam

I’m in no way opposing the rapidly advancing timeline we are experiencing with technology, because I do believe there are a lot of people out there working on the greater good that can come from it. Just like this podcast I came across listening to Radiolab, called ‘more or less human’. In this episode they talk about the ways in which this technology boom is creating better opportunities in niche areas. Later in the episode they interview a guy who through artificial intelligence and virtual reality was able to talk to himself as Freud in a cognitive therapy session. Seems a clunky idea now, but the concept is ground breaking! It has the ability to trigger your brain to think of situations and struggles you may be encountering in a different reflective state. Thus creating new ideas and thoughts on situations you may not have been able to consider before. Some people find it difficult to breakdown the perception of a psychiatrist as a cry for help, or the typical uncomfortable sofa whilst being interrogated. What’s unique with this technology is that it is actually you asking yourself the questions, whilst the goggles will transfer your point of view from your created avatar to Freud’s. Just take a moment to reflect now that the modern internet as we know it was introduced to us only thirty years ago, and modern minds of today are creating technology like this. Technology plays a pivotal role in developing us as societies on a global scale. I do concede that you have to recognise the entrepreneurship from these people, and their reward in today’s world is money for doing so. What I would like to see is more interest and development to key practical technologies like this first, in order to create a better existence whilst we are rewarded with being here to enjoy this planet for what it has to offer.

The theme for the photos throughout this post are dedicated to the hundreds of children I have met across my travels in Asia. A culture where social media is present in the more developed societies of their retrospective countries, but in the countryside they are lucky to have running water. These kids were my inspiration during a month long motorbike tour in Vietnam, reminded me that depression is very much reflective of your subconscious learnings during childhood. Depression as a whole is not really recognised across Asia, as it is yet to achieve an epidemic state to have the awareness like it does in the west. This I believe so because of their belief based culture, and lack of access to developed world variables such as technology and social media are not present during their childhoods.

Street Artist, China