Going to university can be a wonderful time. Exciting, life changing, memorable. But it can also be a difficult time. A perfect storm of factors colliding, and it doesn’t always go smoothly:
- Leaving home – family & friends – your support network up to this point
- Having to make new friends – maybe struggling to find people you click with, or maybe the drama that comes from new group dynamics where not everyone gets on.
- New romantic relationships, or casual sexual encounters
- First time looking after yourself – feeding yourself (are you getting the right nutrition, or, living on cup-a-soup, pot noodles and vodka, like I did for a while?) – washing your clothes, making sure you have loo roll.
- Maybe the first time dealing with your finances – balancing the need to pay rent, buy books, clothes, food – with your desire to socialise. Do you get a part time job? Or will your studies suffer.
- Debt – for most people, studying now equals considerable debt. Despite reassurance that you won’t have to pay your student loans back until you’re earning enough – you may end up in more debt than just those loans. And of course the university doesn’t kindly give you your fees back if you end up not passing or dropping out of your course, so this compounds any worries you have about your capability to meet the requirements of the course.
- Social Media – everyone sharing their perfect lives, pouty selfies, body shots – trolls and bullying have become a horrible fact of modern life, along with the always on – 24 hour rolling news culture that gives the mind no peace at all.
- Studies. Oh yeah! That thing you are actually there to do can often involve considerable work, and be quite difficult. Sometimes you might struggle – and if other issues such as needing to work for money, relationship problems or a hectic social life start to encroach on your important library & essay writing / lab time – then concern about performance can really start to bother you.
It is no wonder that sometimes young people start to struggle and maybe experience symptoms of anxiety or depression – or even worse. 78% Students in fact say that they have had mental health difficulties, but only half seek help. Even more troubling is the significant number of students who feel so trapped and without hope that they sadly take their own lives each year.
The ironic fact is that, in theory, Universities are places where it can be much easier than some others to access support. Student support services, Counselling, Chaplaincy, Student Union services. There is often a lot available. Financial advice, academic support – mitigation & extenuating circumstances policies, library services, study skills & disability support, wardens etc in Halls. But one thing even 18 year olds bring with them along with whatever the modern version of a Klimt or Monet poster and Alanis Morisette CD (showing my age there) – is stigma.
Admitting that you are finding things hard is incredibly difficult. You race towards this wonderful freedom, and want desperately to be seen as “grown up”. Be able to cope. So how many first years admit to their parents that they are lonely, they miss home, they’re struggling either financially or academically. People often will put a brave face on until things are so bad they don’t know how to even start. Admitting to tutors that you need help can be difficult too – though if you were heaving your guts up with a stomach bug when you were meant to be writing an essay then I doubt you’d think twice of applying for an extension.
Universities are recognising that they need to help students and staff to deal with this avalanche of stress inducing circumstances. As well as providing the services we have already mentioned, a whole university approach to Mental Health is key.
- Make sure policies and practices are reviewed to a) try and promote good mental health, prevent undue stress which may contribute to mental ill health, and b) support those who may experience mental ill health to recover and resume their studies or work.
- Have a wide range of well staffed support services to help deal with some of the causes of stress, advice lines, educational support, as well as a range of counselling options for both staff and students.
- Seek to improve the culture of the University relating to mental ill health by raising awareness and improving understanding about the impact of mental health conditions. (MHFA Lite courses are a good broad based starter to get people thinking about mental health as something we all have, and need to manage just like our physical health)
- Provide plenty of opportunities for people to develop strategies to support their wellbeing – physical activity, nutrition, volunteering activities, social activities, short, fun, non compulsory learning opportunities, mindfulness/meditation/relaxation support.
- Ensure key people throughout the organisation have a more in depth understanding of Mental Health and the importance of embedding a positive approach right the way through both student and staff structures. (Mental Health First Aid’s One Day Higher Education course aims at creating “Mental Health Champions” – an intensive look which would be ideal at this level)
- Train appropriate people in Mental Health First Aid, so they are better equipped to spot signs and symptoms of mental ill health – enabling them to provide comfort and information, and hopefully help individuals to recognise that there is support available out there, and signpost them to appropriate professional help. Deciding who should take on this role – it is important to think about who is most likely to find themselves in a position where they might need to help someone. Often it is more likely to be security staff, late night library assistants, wardens, or even bar staff – who might come across someone in a moment of crisis. Union representatives or members of staff or student networks are also good candidates, where people may go for help.
If you are interested in Mental Health First Aid in a University environment – please do get in touch. I am compiling a list of interested people to set a suitable date for a HE course in West Yorkshire – hopefully Leeds in January. But I am very happy to discuss your requirements.
(P.S. of course it isn’t all bad – otherwise I wouldn’t keep going back for more – here’s me in my latest silly hat for PG Cert Interpersonal and Counselling Skills.)