“To begin to understand the increase in reported mental health issues at universities, you need to understand the rich and often shameful history in mental health,” begins Rosie. “It’s a lot more complicated than the influence of social media. There’s a long history of debates between practitioners, stigma has been pervasive and slowed research progress, and only in recent years has the voice of the individual and more empowered recovery models evolved – all of which impacts our current approaches and existing narratives.
“What we do know is that the number of students who feel they are experiencing mental distress is rising. There are interesting elements about being a student in itself that can impact wellbeing. Living independently at university and adjusting to the student lifestyle brings its own challenges – lack of sleep, poor diet, work pressures, lack of exercise, and alcohol and drug consumption are all risk factors for developing mental health difficulties. Academics have also pointed to a range of potential causes for increasing distress, some of which have more evidence than others – debt, bullying (online and otherwise), sexual violence, social media, loneliness, increased exam stress, pressure to achieve high grades, demographic changes. We know that demand for mental health services is rising, reflected in data collected by university and NHS services. That, along with the fact that 75% of mental health problems onset before the age of 24, means that we need to be talking more about the health of the group of the population we all work with.”
Student Minds operates in more than 120 universities around the UK, empowering students and the wider university community to develop the knowledge and confidence to look after their own mental health, support others and create change. Key to the charity’s approach is ensuring that young people have agency and the community around them has the health literacy and tools to respond.
“Student Minds is uniquely focused on helping to develop healthy university communities, and I think our values say a lot about how we do this,” explains Rosie. “We endeavour to be empowering, innovative, collaborative and courageous. We apply this to the three levels we work at: student-led approaches, strategic organisational support to achieve university-wide approaches, and tackling national challenges.
“We work with a range of academics and professionals, as well as students, to co-develop approaches. For example, our founder Dr Nicola Byrom is based at King’s College London overseeing Smarten, a new national research network for academics to add to the evidence base in student mental health and help us to measure the right things. Another project in the pipeline involves online wellbeing intervention for postgraduate research students co-developed by professionals and students. Hundreds of students and professionals across the UK – as well as our staff team – make up our collective effort to enable our university communities to thrive.”
The number of students who are experiencing mental distress is rising – the fact that 75% of mental health problems onset before the age of 24 means we need to talk more about mental health
In 2018, the UK Government announced the development of a University Mental Health Charter, designed to help universities deliver genuinely holistic approaches to mental health. The driving force behind the initiative, Student Minds is developing the Charter, in partnership with Universities UK, National Union of Students and AMOSSHE, The Student Services Organisation.
“The University Mental Health Charter will help us long-term to learn together about best practice in creating healthy communities. We’re working to tackle a variety of issues from providing peer support groups for students experiencing depression to tackling national issues including research gaps, health inequalities and transition points. What makes Student Minds’ work so exciting is that we can influence the conversation around mental health at all levels. Working with academics and professionals is crucial to help us identify which approaches work (or don’t work), while students are the leaders, teachers and doctors of the future, so good work at this point could have a multitude of future positive impacts. Together we can be bold and shape policy for the future.
“There is still a way to go though before we all have the health literacy to know the difference between the normal ups and downs of life and when something might be more serious and benefit from professional or other support. Over the last decade we’ve seen a real change in approaches to mental health, and this has been echoed in conversations I’ve had with professionals across the globe, but there are still a lot of barriers to seeking help. I think much of the health system is only just starting to take a more inclusive approach to meeting the needs of all members of society. Progress is great but I worry that if as a society we don’t grapple with other social issues which are potential risk factors, such as poverty, discrimination and climate change, we could see a rise in mental illness. It’s so important we keep working hard together to create healthy thriving communities.”
Talking about our mental health is one of the first steps towards changing how we think and act about mental health problems as a society. Yet many of us only think to look after our mental health when we’re experiencing difficulties or feel at a crisis point. While opening up about our mental health can feel daunting, having a conversation can help us to feel supported when we need it most.
“Remember you’re not alone,” says Rosie. “Sometimes a chat with a friend can help you muster up the courage to pick up the phone to services. Seeking help is a sign of strength. There’s lots of support available from counselling to mentoring so it’s important to remember that if the first thing you try isn’t right for you, you can try other options.
“There are things we can all do to look after our mental health – the fundamentals of spending time with people, sleep, exercise, eating well, doing things we enjoy. I see it as trying to become an expert in my own mind. We all have off days, but I know that when I proactively get out for a walk, have a cuppa with a friend, and build in time to see a play or concert I feel better equipped for what life throws at me.”
Student Minds have a wide range of support resources available online, and you can find additional resources through the NHS.
Words: Faye Haslam (History, 2012), Connect Staff Writer
Nottingham graduate, writer and speaker. Curious creative inspired by film, music, history, knowledge and big ideas. A traveller at heart, always planning the next big adventure.