Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Students - mental health is just as important as physical health. Look after it!

Today is Uni Mental Health Day!

It's been great to see Twitter jam-packed with universities signing the Time to Talk pledge and raising awareness about students and mental health. As a student myself, it was great to see the stigma starting to be broken down around such an important issue. I decided that today would be a good opportunity to educate myself a bit more about the mental health of students.

It's obvious that going to university or college for the first time (and even school) can be extremely daunting. Students face massive life changes such as leaving home for the first time, living somewhere new, making new friends, finding themselves, managing workloads, balancing study/work/family/friends, and ever-growing financial worries. Therefore, many students are bound to feel vulnerable, and as a mature student returning to college, I know this feeling only too well.

Despite the fact that I'm now almost six months into my Access course, managing everything is not easy. Even now I'm worried that I'm wasting valuable revision time on blogging! I remember my first few weeks, worrying that no one liked me, that I wouldn't 'fit in' and that I'd fail like I had done before. What if I didn't get a uni place? What if I became unwell again? What if I hated the course? Thankfully, I have an incredible group of friends already, I love the subjects I study with a passion and I have four university offers. But managing the workload can be difficult, especially when I need to balance this with work, family, friends, running a house and actually having some time doing nothing.

We know that one in four of us will experience difficulties with our mental health at some point in our lives, and students aren't void from this statistic. What surprised me though is that there still seems to be a great amount of stigma attached to mental health for students. One recent study found that 43% of first year students didn't feel comfortable talking about mental health problems with their friends, and only one in ten make use of the counselling service provided by their institution. This is despite the fact that 20% of students consider themselves to have a mental health problem.

So how can we change this?

The University Mental Health Advisors Network (UMHAWD), supported by Students Minds and the Alliance for Student-Led Wellbeing, held their first University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day in 2012, with the aim to 'focus efforts that promote the mental health of people who live and work in Higher Education.'

Educational institutions need to work on creating an environment where students realise that it's okay to talk about mental health. Support services need to be accessible and made clear to students. There needs to be more done on how to help students recognise feelings of distress and what they can do should they want additional support. The stigma also needs to be broken down, and fast - in an NUS study, 64% of students reported that they had not seeked help from any 'formal' services in relation to their mental distress.

How can you look after yourself as a student then?

Seeking professional support is a personal choice. Whilst students may not want to have professional support, and this choice should undoubtedly be respected, there are plenty of ways in which you can help yourself and look after your mental wellbeing. Here are some tips:

  • Sleep - Yupp, sorry to say it, but despite the fact that you have a course deadline tomorrow, you've still got to catch some z's. Lack of sleep can severely affect your mental health, and too much of it could be a potential sign of depression. Whilst long lay ins and staying up late can be tempting, try and go to bed and wake up at the same time each day if you can.
  • Diet - What you eat and drink can have an impact on your mental health. Too much caffeine can heighten anxiety, and not eating enough (or eating the right things) can affect your concentration levels. There's some fantastic student cookbooks out there so grab one and get creative with your cooking skills.
  • Drugs and alcohol - I'm anti-drugs and I don't drink so I may seem biased here, but remember that drugs and alcohol can play havoc with your mental health. Alcohol is a depressive and can react to certain medications, whilst drugs may heighten paranoia or cause hallucinations for example. 
  • Physical activity - Exercising, particularly outdoors, can do wonders for your mental health. Many studies have proven that it can help with anxiety and depression, and boosts your confidence and self-esteem too. Look into university/college gyms, sports clubs and recreational activities. 
  • Do something you enjoy - Relax. Take a day off. Don't be too hard on yourself. If you're experience a period of low mental wellbeing, look after yourself and take a step back. There's nothing wrong with taking time out.
  • Talk to someone - If it's not a professional, then a friend or family member may be able to help. Perhaps they can offer practical advice and support, or just give you a much-needed different perspective on something you're struggling with. Remember that the little things can make the biggest differences, so stick the kettle on and have a natter. 

And if you do want help?

Speak to a member of staff at your institution, someone you can trust. Perhaps that's your tutor, your head of school or someone from the support services. Remember, they are there to help you. Many institutions provide free counselling services and can signpost you to other local agencies or specific services should you require/want it.

If you're struggling with your mental health as a student, try and get organised. Some people like to keep a mood diary that identifies triggers that cause mental distress. Work out a timetable that incoporates everything in your life, and make sure it's balanced so that you have some 'me' time.

If studying itself is causing you stress, try and plan ahead. Understand what is expected from you from your tutors, and if you're unsure, then ask. Having all the information allows you to work out what you need to do and when, and where to go should you need more help. If your struggling with deadlines, speak to your tutor. You may be able to get an extension or extra 1-2-1 support.

Don't forget as well that you might also be eligible for extra financial support. Contact your financial support service at your institution to see if you meet the criteria.

Being a student can be challenging, and for many of us, it is a life-changing experience that comes with both positives and difficulties. We need to breakdown the stigma of mental health in student environments, so don't be afraid to be open and honest - recognise that asking for help is actually one of the most bravest things you'll ever do and it is an incredible strength in itself.

Links

Priory research - UK students suffer in silence when it comes to mental health
Why is University Mental Health Awareness Week so important? - The Guardian
NHS Choices - Student mental health
NUS Student Mental Distress Survey
StudentMinds