Mental health is an incredibly important topic that needs tackling, and one that institutions need to do more to engage with. Whilst at university, one in four students will suffer from depression. There are many factors that can provoke the onset of depression; from the ever-increasing financial pressures whilst being at university to being in a completely new and unfamiliar environment, as well as the expectation of having to do extremely well – particularly with more students coming to university and leaving with degrees. Students increasingly have to do more and more to make themselves stand out, a task that can be very stressful and have a detrimental impact on a person’s well being.
Both before and during my journey through university, I have had many close experiences with mental health. In my first year, I had not known much about it. I was focused on having fun, meeting new people and making the most of my new found freedom in Bristol – every student’s paradise! My experiences did not start to take place until the second and third year of my degree where I spent a year studying abroad in Virginia, USA, before returning back to the UK. During my second and third year one of my flatmates disappeared after experiencing high levels of stress (still officially missing), and one of my closest friends at UWE committed suicide, something which is absolutely devastating to have to go through. I certainly wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, not even my worst enemy.
For me it wasn’t about ‘blaming them for the mess they had left behind’, or ‘how selfish they had been’. I wanted to confront the issue; to try to understand why they did it and why it had got to the point where they felt that that was the only option left. I knew I wasn’t necessarily going to get the answers I was looking for, but nonetheless I pursued those questions. What is most important is to learn and become educated, so that other students and individuals, who find themselves contemplating taking their own life, can be reached out to and supported.
As a result, I began campaigning for improved welfare services at our institution, with a vision to push this across all universities up and down the country, supporting initiatives such as ‘Time to Change’, which is run by Mind and Rethink.
At the last Students’ Union AGM I proposed a motion to help UWE do just that. Entitled ‘Implementation of Mental Health Awareness Training for UWE Staff’; it resolved to get every member of the University and Union staff trained in Mental Health awareness, to engage more with the NUS on the issue and to gain the Union’s support for pushing a national campaign. Therefore, in February of this year, the ‘Time to Change’ pledge was signed by UWE Students’ Union, which showed a public commitment to challenging mental health. The event brought together UWE Wellbeing Services, UWE Human Resources and UWE Pro Vice Chancellor, to ensure that it is was an fully effective institutional initiative. There has also been progress within the Union in getting staff trained and it is now time to lobby the University to go that extra mile and get its entire staff acknowledging the mental health of students. Therefore, UWE’s Learning and Development Centre now hold training sessions, which staff are able to enrol on. Whilst this is a great start, instead of waiting for staff to sign up, it needs to be rolled out to them, as part of one of the few Staff Development days that take place through the course of each calendar year.
To look at additional strategies for making this happen, Louise Goux-Wirth, our Community and Welfare Vice President, gave me the opportunity to go on a mental health training course at the National Union of Students (NUS) HQ to learn more, including tips for running campaigns and sharing ideas with other like-minded students from up and down the country. The University of Manchester Students’ Union, for example, run an online resource called ‘Liberate Yourself’ (www.liberateyourself.co.uk) and NUS Scotland run a Scottish government funded campaign called ‘Think Positive’, which includes research reports entitled Silently Stressed (2010) and Breaking the Silence (2011).1
“Direct social contact with people with mental health problems is the most effective way to challenge stigma and change public attitudes.”
With such alarming statistics surrounding mental health, coupled alongside the recent NUS Conference, it has resolved a number of students to start thinking big and push for a priority campaign on this matter for next year. UWE could potentially set the trend as the first institution to get all staff trained in mental health awareness and set a sure example for other institutions to follow.
This is only one step, as beyond this, the scope is endless. Mental health training should be extended into Further Education, and then past the Student Movement itself, to help support organisations such as Mind in changing attitudes and putting an end to the mental health discrimination, not just at university, but also in the work place and the wider world.
After all, any person – and in this case more specifically, any student – that suffers with depression or any other mental health issue is not ‘a victim of the plague’. They need people around them to support them, not avoid them. It can be tricky to help those close to you when not fully understanding what it is they are going through. However, making yourself known that you are there when a friend or relative’s well-being is not what it should be, will certainly help them feel less isolated. Through helping raise awareness, we can assist in diminishing the social stigma that surrounds mental health issues and work towards a more improved society, which helps those suffering to feel that they are far from alone.
If you are interested in getting involved with campaigning on mental health email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more info on Mental Health issues please see: www.time-to-change.org.uk, www.nus.org.uk/thinkpositive, www.nmhdu.org.uk, and www.mind.org.uk.
UWE Wellbeing : www.uwe.ac.uk/students
Statistics on mental health:
- Nearly nine out of ten people (87%) with mental health problems have been affected by stigma and discrimination.1
- Women are more likely to have been treated for a mental health problem than men (29% compared to 17%). This could be because, when asked, women are more likely to report symptoms of common mental health problems.
- One in eight men (12.5%) has a common mental health problem.
- One in eight people would not want to live next door to someone who has been mentally ill.
- Only 26% of people agree that most women who have been treated in hospital for mental illness can be trusted to babysit their child – 74% do not.
- 20% of people think people with a history of mental illness should not hold public office (down from 22% in 2009).
- LGBT people are 10 times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual friends.
- There is a strong association between homophobic bullying and mental ill health including low self-esteem, fear, stress and self-harm.
- Young Black Men in the UK are much more likely to have a mental health problem but least likely to seek any treatment.
- In addition to the stressors faced by students in general, international students also have to contend with varying degrees of culture shock, transition from one academic system to another, a change in identity, additional financial burdens and, for many, communicating in a second or third language. (Here it is important to point out that the perception of mental health varies very widely amongst international students, depending on where they are from.