As their online presence grows, anonymous confession pages on Facebook are being increasingly used as a means of seeking advice and support
“When I’m alone in my room I’m just constantly sad. Like I’ll just sit and stare at the walls and not really do anything. Been feeling like this for a long time but I’ve never wanted to talk to anyone about it,” one anonymous message reads on Leedsfess – one of the many British university ‘confession pages’ on Facebook.
There are over 100 pages for universities within the UK, all allowing students to submit messages for publication anonymously. The pages’ initial purpose was comic relief, and there are still a lot of posts professing secret crushes – “EP I miss your bum” – or spouting downright nonsense – “I wish bees were big enough to pet”. “Confessions page for Leeds – tell us your grudges, crushes, and secrets…” says the Leedsfess info page.
In recent years, the pages have grown significantly. Unitruths is one server where students at colleges anonymously submit, its homepage displaying the confessions pages for institutions in the UK, US, China, and Australia. While Brumfess, for students at the University of Birmingham has amassed over 12,000 likes, Leedsfess, by Leeds uni students, boasts over 27,000. These aren’t niche, fringe groups; most are followed by the majority of their respective student communities. University of Sheffield students’ page Sheffessions even hosted their own club night in December 2019. And infamously, in November 2019, ExeHonestly (by Exeter uni students) made national news when Nazi propaganda was published by admins. The page has since been shut down.
As their online presence grows, these pages are being increasingly used as a means of seeking mental health advice. Jess*, a Spanish and Arabic student at the University of Exeter, tells Dazed about submitting a message to ExeHonestly, detailing her experience of an anorexia relapse.
“I asked for advice because I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to,” she says. “Lots of people commented saying I could message them, or posted numbers for hotlines or apps to help with anxiety. I also got a lot of comments from people who said they felt the same way.”
Jess says that comments also pointed her towards the university counselling service. “I got an appointment immediately and started going twice a week, which was the biggest help,” she says. “I loved it.”
For Jess, posting on ExeHonestly facilitated her getting professional help. The University of Exeter spent £1.5m on wellbeing services between 2017 and 2018, and placed in the top five British universities for managing mental health issues of students on campus with its services.
But for students at other universities, mental health services remain underfunded, and many are critically unsupported. Students are particularly vulnerable when it comes to mental health issues. A study by Ann Macaskill explains that the peak onset for mental health issues is between the ages of 18-24, making students a high-risk group. Moreover, Macaskill emphasises that the additional stresses of transitioning to university life are not to be underestimated: “Living away from home for the first time, having to make new friends, handle finances, adjusting to new learning regimes, and creating a new identity as a student” all can factor into the reasons why students in particular can struggle with their mental health. Macaskill goes on to note that access to mental health services in the NHS has “progressively narrowed in recent years to focus on those with the severest problems” – meaning that students with more moderate problems are often left without treatment.
Though cuts to NHS mental health services are devastating, one would hope that “students with more moderate problems” would be able to access adequate help via university. But university mental health services are seldom sufficiently funded. Between 2018 and 2019, the University of Leeds only spent £978,900 on student counselling services and a mental health team.
Sophia Hartley is the incoming Leeds University Union Welfare Officer for the academic year 2020/21. She tells Dazed that the union “have a range of support to offer at the university, which is definitely a positive reflection of our mental health services”. The services on offer for student wellbeing include “single session therapeutic consultations; mental health and well-being support; brief face-to-face and online counselling; groups and workshops; meditation; and a range of digital self-help resources such as the Big White Wall and downloadable MP3s”.
Sophia believes that student dissatisfaction with Leeds’ mental health services lies with the fact that “students are not aware of their existence, or how to access them”: to address this, she plans to “improve our signposting to all our services to increase student engagement with what’s on offer”.
She does acknowledge that some things are lacking – but also hopes to address this in the coming year. “I want to focus on challenging sexual assault at university; introduce a safe space for victims; and to establish a zero-tolerance policy for any form of sexual harassment on and off campus. I think another big issue with our mental health services is representation. BAME students are less likely to seek mental health support so we need to ensure that we provide services that are culturally appropriate to our diverse population at Leeds.”
Georgia* is an English and Philosophy student at the University of Leeds. She’s found that although waiting times for counselling remain relatively short, the quality of the service is lacking. “They just tell you to sleep more, start exercising, and improve your diet and then come back. I understand that’s all helpful advice but it’s also incompatible with a student lifestyle and doesn’t get to the root of my issues.”
She’s submitted posts about her mental health to Leedsfess, but they’ve never been posted. “I submit little rants when I’m drunk and upset sometimes because it feels more accessible than other options.”
“They’ve never posted any of them so I never get to see what people think,” she says. But she makes the point that it’s “so helpful” just to write down her thoughts anyway.
“There’s work suggesting that anonymity and online sharing can help people get out issues they cannot deal with face to face. Sharing with others, and seeing others’ reactions can help a person feel less alone” – Sharon Coen, senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Salford
Leedsfess admins told Dazed that they consciously limit posts relating to mental health, which is perhaps why none of Georgia’s* submissions have been posted. The admin team say that “we make sure to approve some on a regular basis, but we also try not to approve anything that could potentially trigger a severe response in people who see the post”. Striking a balance is a difficult job, especially when admins are just student volunteers. Speaking to Dazed, the team made the valid point that “we’re students just like the people making the posts, and not qualified mental health professionals”.
Leeds isn’t the only university struggling to provide adequate wellbeing services. Although the University of Cambridge’s wealth totals an estimated £4.9bn, in 2018, only £761,000 was spent on the student counselling service.
The number of Cambridge students seeking help for issues relating to depression and anxiety has rocketed in recent years. From 2013 to 2019, the university counselling service received a 90 per cent increase in students seeking support. This has caused a growing strain on resources: the average waiting time for counselling currently stands at four to five weeks, and even longer if your availability is limited.
Camfess offers a more immediate place to turn to. “We try to post all mental health submissions, and it is very very important to us that all necessary trigger and content warnings are attached,” one admin tells Dazed. “Mental health was a prime focus when setting up the page. It is important that these people are heard, and it warms us when constructive advice and compassionate voices are seen within the comments.”
While the admins acknowledge that “sometimes there are distressing calls for help”, they have never recieved “detailed suicide notes”. There are, however, guidelines in place for if a submission was ever urgent: an admin tells Dazed that if they “spotted signs of imminent harm to oneself or others”, the authorities would be duly contacted.
It seems more than anything that anonymous submitters are just grateful for this outlet – Camfess admins tell Dazed that “from time to time we receive messages thanking us and the kind readers who have commented helpful things. There are also messages which thank us for keeping the community going and reminding people that they are not alone”.
There is sometimes an assumption that all social media is unambiguously detrimental to mental health, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Sharon Coen is a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Salford, and believes articulating painful emotions and sharing these posts anonymously can be a good source of comfort to those struggling.
“There’s work suggesting that anonymity and online sharing can help people get out issues they cannot deal with face to face,” she says. “Sharing with others, and seeing others’ reactions can help a person feel less alone.”
“There are dangers too,” she admits. “The person could be subjected to online abuse. In that case, the community needs to step in, and the person learn that while there may be abusers, there are also many others who are on their side.”
And it does seem that comments offering support and solidarity far outweigh any abuse. Comments under a single Durfess post seeking help for an eating disorder are emblematic of pure compassion: “Things sound really tough for you right now, but don’t give up”; “I went through exactly the same thing”; “You are always welcome to message me”.
Although they can’t replace professional help, perhaps when it comes to seeking some reassurance and comfort, confessions pages aren’t a bad place to start. As Jess* says, using a confessions page “made (her) feel a lot better – less alone”.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity