When faced with difficult emotional struggle at university, it’s often hard to know where to turn. It can be a challenge for people suffering from mental health issues to know whether they need to seek help or not, let alone where to get it from. Even at a University like Leeds, which has such a well regarded range of services across the campus, Union and city, it can sometimes be a struggle for students to access those services.
It’s not hard to see why the nation may be struggling to deal with its mental health problem. A national investigation has found that in April this year, there were 3,460 fewer nurses working in mental health than there were two years previously. A study this year carried out by the charity Mind found that out of 2,000 people surveyed, more than half had waited over three months for an assessment, and half of respondents said that they did not have enough sessions to help them recover. It is clear to see that the mental health services offered by our NHS are struggling, with headline after headline warning of the inevitable crisis facing our health service.
As if it wasn’t difficult enough for people to access these services, it can be even harder for students. University, while being an amazing opportunity for so many students, can be an intense and sometimes triggering experience. Often, if a student arrives at University and registers to see someone about their mental health, by the time they get to the top of the waiting list, it is already Christmas – meaning they’re at home (if they are not originally from Leeds). By the time they are the top of the list again it is Easter, and so it goes. But why is it so hard to access mental health services in particular? Why is mental health treated so differently to physical health?
It’s arguably down to stigma. People do not understand what it is to have a mental health problem. People generally do not seem to understand what it is to have ‘mental health’ at all. Mental health is not something that only affects those who suffer from problems, but in fact something we all have. Some of us are lucky, and never experience issues such as Depression or Anxiety, but some of us do experience mental ill health. However, mental health is not a binary. Mental health is much like a spectrum – some people may suffer from rather severe disorders, whereas the symptoms of other sufferers are seen as more mild. Anyone can fall ill, and in fact one in four people experience a mental health issue in any given year. Mental health difficulties are not easy to spot, and they are not easy to diagnose. The fact that it is harder to diagnose and clearly define can lead to it being ‘othered’, and seen as something dissimilar to physical health. And while it has its differences, it makes it no less serious or ‘real’ than physical health issues.
The subject of language plays into the way society interacts with mental health quite strongly. While many people may not be conscious of it, using words such as ‘crazy’ can contribute, albeit unconsciously, to the demonisation of those with mental health issues. This has the potential to entirely marginalise those with mental health issues. But it isn’t only words like ‘crazy’ that can create a misconception around mental health. People often flippantly refer to themselves as being depressed or as being an insomniac, which can often deligitimise those who actually struggle with those problems.
People often flippantly refer to themselves as being depressed or as being an insomniac, which can often deligitimise those who actually struggle with those problems.
Natalie, Wellbeing Manager for the Student Advice Centre, extrapolates on some of the issues that students at the University of Leeds have to deal with, and bring to the student advice office. She notes how the conventional problems and conceptions of mental health issue are changing and expanding, ‘[The Advice Centre] have traditionally collated data about these core areas of our work (money, academic, housing) but we are increasingly seeing students whose difficulties have until now been recorded as “Other Matters”. This includes a range including mental health difficulties, personal & relationship problems and issues relating to disabilities.’
Mental health issues are just as serious as physical issues, and can in fact lead to serious physical health issues. One of the most problematic consequences of mental health issues is the inability to see that you might have a problem. Often, there are avenues you can pursue in order to gain a better insight into your own mental health: seek an appointment with your GP, self-refer for the university’s Counselling service, or even call the Leeds Nightline. If you are worried about a friend, then remember that the Advice Centre in LUU can help you out.
Mental health is still perceived as a vague and intangible concept that we find hard to pin down because of the inability to tie the illness to a part of the body. Allowing flexibility in our understanding of what ‘mental health’ is gives room for change and improvement in a national health system. It’s clear that conceptions of mental health, both from those who struggle with issues and from those who deal with them, are becoming more flexible and inclusive. The idea that our society may be ready to accommodate that redefinition and free itself from the stigma, at this point in time, might not seem like such an impossible one.
photos: The Guardian & Wellcome Images