University confessions page admins say suicidal posts have doubled
One small group of people have seen the true extent of the student mental health crisis: confessions page admins
Eight students have died this term and student mental health is plummeting, quickly. Freshers are now trapped in halls with only their housemates, who they’ve known for less than two months, unable to leave. Manchester University tried to fence freshers into their accommodation. Leeds halls are routinely patrolled with security guards and dogs. Bristol’s Director of Public Health called COVID a “gift” to students and yet the standard uni room more closely resembles a prison than a hotel. Students are dying. Students are literally dying.
Uni students have never needed an outlet more. But the favoured support system is not the uni’s counselling service, nor is it NHS mental health resources, nor is it any of those links at the bottom of uni emails full of bad news and “blended” learning updates. So where are students turning to tell people they’re thinking of self-harming, or struggling with an immense workload, or simply no longer wish to exist? Concrete Confessions Between UEA Sessions, at the University of East Anglia. Or Leedsfess, Leed-ons and Memerva at Leeds University. At Lancaster University, ranked seventh in the UK, it’s Lancsfessions 2: Electric Boogaloo. At University College London, it’s UCLove. You’d hardly expect these Facebook pages to have a mounting presence of posts about students wanting to end their own lives, but they’re quickly becoming the first port of call in students’ last cries for help.
Students have always used these pages for more than just memes and library crushes – they’ve included posts about depression, anxiety and sexual assault for years. But since students returned this year, admins say confessions page posts about suicide have doubled. More general posts about mental health have tripled. They’re rising so steadily that the admins cannot even conceive the idea of posting them all – they’d never be able to get through them.
This is the reality of mental health at university right now. One small, covert group of students knows the inside of the student body’s psyche better than anyone else. Arguably better than the uni’s support services, and occasionally better than a student’s own friends or family.
Admins for Sheffessions, the confessions page for the University of Sheffield, say one in four submissions are now concerning mental health. “Before uni was moved into online teaching, only around one in eight submissions were mental health related,” they said, based on their page’s statistics from 2019. Other university confessions pages have witnessed the spike too. “We can get anywhere between 1-15 posts per day ranging from simply people asking for advice to people who are going through a mental health crisis,” the admins of Bristol-based confessions page Bristruths told The Tab. “Since the second lockdown was announced by the government on the 31st October, we’ve seen a large rise in these posts.”
In fact, every university confessions page The Tab reached out to has seen this spike. “I’ve looked at these submissions every single day for a year. There’s definitely been an increase,” says Jack*, one of the admins for the University of Leeds confession page Leedsfess. “And one thing we’ve noticed is that this is true for everyone that’s submitting – we’ve had first years that are struggling with loneliness, finding it hard to make friends, second years who can’t make full use of their societies and hate uni being online, and third years who are worried about graduating.”
Because this increase in submissions has been so stark, admins literally cannot post them all. This is even true for posts about suicide. They become innumerable and are so similar in terms of the content they feature that admins have to pick one to post and just hope that people can extrapolate advice from that post – instead of them posting all the individual confessions. “We get about 100 submissions a day,” Jack says. “We used to have a lot of confessions about anxiety and loneliness, but recently submissions have got a lot darker. With these increasingly desperate posts, there’s a real toss-up between whether you share them with the public or not. Because really we’re just hoping that someone comes forward in the comments and says the right words. But they might not.
“The unofficial rules are that we don’t share the extremely bad cases because, if something were to go wrong – say someone posted a nasty comment, or it wasn’t a well-received post, like there were no comments – we couldn’t feel comfortable letting that happen. So we don’t tend to post those.”
This is just one of the painful parts of running a confessions page amidst a mental health crisis. While the anonymity of these pages is what makes them successful in the first place – these pages all have over 15,000 likes on Facebook and some even top the 30,000 mark – this anonymity prevents admins from reaching out to the people that need it most. All admins have in their arsenal is the option to post, or not to post. If they see a particularly painful submission and genuinely worry for the person who sent it, there is nothing they can do to find them or offer help. “It’s the hardest thing about running an anonymous page,” the admin for Bristruths said.
Luckily, the commenters can pull through. Some pages even have regular commenters who will respond to nearly every mental health-related post, offering their support. Leeds student Hannah Marie is one of those people. She responds to multiple Leedsfess posts a week, doing what she can to uplift and guide the people who are struggling. “At first I think it was just me constantly checking the pages during lockdown out of boredom and wanting to feel like I was with other students again which then led me to commenting,” she told The Tab.
“Shortly after I realised how easy it is to give small pieces of advice to people that even if they aren’t necessarily helpful in themselves can just make people feel a bit more supported and less alone in their situation which, from personal experience, I think makes a big difference.”
Hannah will frequently get messages from other students thanking her for the advice she shared. She even had the author of an anonymous submission get in touch, waiving their anonymity to tell her how grateful they were. “I don’t think my advice is really that good, but for the person submitting their issue, knowing that someone cares can be comforting I suppose.”
And while these pages were originally just for screaming into the void, whether that screaming be in regards to a library crush or your declining mental health, they’re increasingly becoming more of a two-way street. A conversation is opening up. As well as people like Hannah commenting and providing support, admins are finding their own ways of reaching out and helping. Admins will expedite posting more concerning or suicidal posts so that they aren’t sitting in the queue for too long. LeedsFess is looking into appointing “welfare officers” for the page who can offer more support in the comments of posts about mental health. And many confessions page admins have started to edit submissions before posting them so they can add their own notes to the bottom. These notes can include personal advice from the admins, links to Samaritans, and other mental health resources.
However, even this can invite an unwelcome reception from page likers. Harry, an admin for Concrete Confessions Between UEA sessions, says: “When you add admin notes you will get people commenting saying ‘this page is for the students, not the admins’ when we’re just trying to help.” Co-admin John agrees: “So many people will be like ‘oh can the admins shut up a bit’, like you can’t win. It sidelines the fact that at the end of the day… it is helpful.”
In fact, the admins get flack for pretty much anything they do. Too many posts about mental health are “too depressing”. Too little and they’re accused of “playing God”. They really can’t win. These waves of student opinion can be so vitriolic that it’s previously prevented admins from posting any mental health submissions at all. When Harry inherited the UEA confessions page in 2018, he says there was a backlog of years and years worth of posts about student mental health that just hadn’t been posted. So gradually he started releasing them and posting current submissions too. “It was so the nature of the page stayed light-hearted, as a place for memes. But mental health is a topic quite close to my heart. I realised that while I couldn’t change the nature of the page completely, there was this big underbelly of students who needed help and didn’t know where or how to get it. So I started integrating those posts.”
This is the motivation behind many confessions page admins. It’s not just for clout – they genuinely want to help. Harry bought Concrete Confessions Between UEA Sessions for £900 two years ago because the previous owner was looking to sell it to a local club promoter. “I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to keep it running, by students for students, with constant posts and keep it ad-free as well. I spent all my student loan and had to cut down on spending for a bit, but it was worth it.”
That’s how much these admins care. But care isn’t a qualification, and as Jack from Leedsfess tells me: “We’re not mental health professionals.” Every single admin cares deeply about mental health and has been through their own personal struggles. But they are students too, and they’re inside the belly of the beast of this mental health crisis just as much as anyone else. Caring for other students while also struggling to care for themselves is starting to take its toll. Many admins have to take breaks or ignore more serious posts for a while, to protect their own mental health. “It is genuinely heartbreaking when we read a submission made by someone who is really struggling or considering suicide,” the admin of Bristruth said. “Admins will often take a step back for a short time as a result of stress or poor mental health, which of course isn’t helped by having to read through hundreds of posts per day.
“Sometimes it can be tough on all the admins, not just one. For example, during the BLM movement, there was a huge volume (up to 300 per day) of submissions. During things like that, it can be hard for us as it takes a huge amount of time and energy to read them all and decide what should be posted or what shouldn’t whilst also trying to be impartial and sensitive. And when inevitably people are unhappy with a post they tend to get aggressive towards admins as if it is our opinion that has been posted. I know that can be really tough especially for new admins or those running pages – it’s almost personal.”
But it being personal is often what gets admins involved in the first place. Emily, another admin for Concrete Confessions Between UEA Sessions, knows this better than anyone. “I dropped out of uni because my partner killed himself on campus. So when I see suicidal posts coming in and people saying ‘there’s no help’, I get it, because there is no help. Like, I know, the situation he was in. And if there was someone who actively reached out to him… he would have been okay. He would be here.”
This is the main criticism of university support that all confessions page admins agree on: it is completely reactive, not proactive. It relies on students reaching out, which they often only do when they are at their lowest ebb, instead of unis reaching out to students. Speaking of her and her boyfriend’s experiences of missing classes when their mental health was suffering, Emily said: “Unis don’t check if you’re okay. They just give you a disciplinary.”
Jack, the admin for LeedsFess, sees this as the core issue. “Universities need to speak to students more. They need to make students aware that they’re there, they’re present. I’ve had a lot of submissions where students feel like the uni isn’t letting them down as such, but they’re just… not there. Maybe people have received a couple of emails about mental health, but they’ve not been checked in on. They’ve just sort of been left to it.”
“Instead of expecting students to come to them they should find ways of reaching out to students who are struggling and they should be helping them,” the admin for Bristruths says.
The rise in confessions page posts is more than proof of the mental health crisis amongst students. It’s evidence of universities’ failure to understand their own students’needs. The pandemic has only worsened this, and it’s getting harder for them to ignore it every day. Universities need to be reaching out to their students more – it shouldn’t be up to students running anonymous confessions pages to become bonafide mental health workers.
But until universities wake up and listen, there is one thing you can do. Take care of your local confessions page admins. They’re going through it too.
If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58.
The Tab’s You Matter campaign is putting a focus on student mental health right now. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]