University Mental Health: Supporting Students Who Need Help

February 24, 2020
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Thursday 5th March 2020 marks University Mental Health Day. This day is run jointly by Student Minds and University Mental Health Advisers Network (UMHAN). The purpose of the day is to encourage staff and students to increase awareness for university students’ mental health and promote their wellbeing. Last year, the theme was on using your voice, which encouraged discussion about mental health in our nation’s universities. This year’s theme is all about random acts of kindness, and how doing kind things for other people can help their mental health as well as your own.

Mental health issues are a widespread problem across all universities and all student bodies. A study by YouGov found that one in four students suffer with mental health problems. In context, this means that in a lecture of 200 students, a staggering 50 (at least) are suffering from a mental health problem.

Furthermore, work by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that the number of students who disclose having mental health problem is continually on the rise. Research found that 15,395 first-year Higher Education students reported a mental health condition in 2015/16, in comparison to only 3,145 in 2006/07. 

However, many students still don’t come forward with the mental health problems they’re facing or ask for help. The Mental Health Foundation found that student suicides had increased by a devastating 79% from 2007 to 2015. This highlights the importance of using your voice and breaking the ongoing stigma surrounding mental health.

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What’s the Issue?

Students are at a heightened risk of suffering with mental health problems. Whilst university can be a valuable and fun experience, it often comes with an extensive amount of stress, pressure, and intrusive emotions. Additionally, these pressures come in many different forms, as we explain below.

Moving Away from Home

Whilst not all students move away for university, the majority of students pack up their bags at the end of summer, often moving to different cities that are miles from home. For many, this will be their first time living away from home, which can bring a whole range of emotions such as home-sickness and loneliness. Furthermore, students often move into flats with people they’ve never met before, which can carry a heightened feeling of worry.

Academic Pressure

When they start their degrees, students face the daunting prospect that they will be studying this for the next few years. Many students also find that their course is different from their expectations. Furthermore, although students are used to exams, deadlines, and expectations, the intensity of university can still come as a shock. Students are asked to learn independently and think originally, which can differ from previous studies.

However, this isn’t only true for first year students. The building workload as students near the end of their studies further enhances feelings of pressure and stress. Students also have to consider what they will do after graduation and begin applying for jobs, all in the midst of their final year studies.

Financial Pressure

We all know that university is expensive – tuition fees, accommodation costs, and the cost of living all add up to a significant amount. On top of academic and social pressures, trying to budget and arrange finances only adds to the growing amount of pressure.

Social Pressure

Students are always being told that ‘university is the best time of your life’. For many people this will ring true, but for others it adds another level of pressure that they must enjoy themselves and have a great time. Moreover, students may feel pressured to attend all social events to try and make friends or because they feel pressured by their friends, even if these activities aren’t what they enjoy doing.

Making Friends

Often, students go to university not knowing anybody. This means that they have to juggle trying to make friends with other types of pressure. Additionally, they may feel lonely and isolated as they try to settle in.

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The Effects of Poor Mental Health

Mental health problems can be incredibly damaging, isolating, and difficult to deal with. At university, the effects of poor mental health can include:

  • A disruption in their ability to live a normal life.
  • An inability to make friends.
  • Lower grades.
  • Being left out of activities or not being invited.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Sleeping problems.
  • Missed lectures, seminars, tutorials, etc.
  • Missing deadlines.
  • Dropping out of university altogether.

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How to Support Your Students

As we’ve seen, mental health problems are widespread and can have many damaging effects on students. If you’re a personal tutor, or work directly with students, you play a vital role in supporting students with mental health issues. Here, we explain some actionable ways to help.

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Regularly Catch Up

You should arrange to meet up with students at the start of a new semester and during it. That way, you can ask how things are going as their studies progress.

Talking to someone is a crucial step in helping them, but often it can be hard to know what to say. The Mental Health Foundation offer the following tips for talking about mental health:

  • Set a space and time that has no distractions.
  • Allow them to share as much or as little information as they want to. You shouldn’t push a student to talk about something they don’t want to discuss.
  • Don’t try to diagnose them. Although you want to help, you aren’t a trained counsellor or medical expert. Don’t make assumptions or jump in with your own diagnosis.
  • Keep your language neutral and ask open ended questions. For example ‘How are you feeling?’
  • Discuss some activities that encourage wellbeing, such as taking a break, exercising, and calming activities like meditation.
  • Listen carefully to what they have to say. Show that you are understanding and let them know you respect their feelings.
  • Ask if they want your support in getting help. For example, if they want you to discuss their situation with their parents.
  • Know your limits. Whilst talking is a great way to help, there is only so much help you can offer. If you think they need help beyond your level of qualification, refer them to the university mental health nurse or counsellor.

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Encourage Students to Reach Out and Not Remain Silent

You should ensure that students know they can reach out to talk to you and not suffer in silence. This should be true for any work and personal issues.

Establish an easy way for your students to talk to you and encourage an open-door policy. Having difficult booking procedures may potentially deter them.

However, you should never push a student to talk to you or disclose more than they are comfortable with doing.

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Change Deadlines Where Necessary

If a student is struggling to manage their workload and their mental health, it may be appropriate to offer extensions on certain pieces of work or mitigating circumstances.

Each student is different and you must consider this on a student-by-student basis.

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Offer as much Academic Support as Possible

You should always be happy to offer academic support to students. If students feel fully prepared to do their work, you will ease some of their academic pressure. Ensure that your students know they can come to you with queries and questions.

During exam season, consider organising revision classes to help students prepare for their exams and relieve some academic pressure.

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Know What to do if they Need More Help

Whilst you should talk to students and offer your help, you may not be trained to deal with certain types of difficulties. In this situation, you should recommend that they speak to the university counselling service. Ensure that you offer your support throughout this process and regularly ask how they’re getting on.

You should also consider telling students about other mental health services that are available to help, such as:

  • Student Minds – A UK student mental health charity.
  • Mind – A mental health charity committed to supporting those with mental health difficulties.
  • Samaritans – A safe place for people to talk about any difficulties they’re experiencing.

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Mental health problems can be isolating, damaging, and incredibly difficult to deal with. At university, these problems can either begin or escalate. University mental health is a serious and growing issue, and one that you have a responsibility to improve.

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