Mental Well-being: why looking after your mind MATTERS

The Gryphon explores the importance of looking after your mental well-being whilst at university and takes a look at the societies and courses of action that can help provide support for mental health issues amongst students.

Freshers’ week is one of the most exciting times of the university year, with new students arriving to start off their student life and returning students settling back in, there’s a flurry of people and fun activities to be doing before the academic year really begins. However, in the midst of the club nights, drinking, getting-to-know-you conversations, and learning to survive in halls, mental well-being becomes an invisible and sometimes ignored part of beginning or continuing student life. Your time at university is meant to be some best years of your life, however, as much as you enjoy your time, the reality and stresses of being a student can play a role in the increasing numbers of students experiencing mental health difficulties during their university career.

A survey carried out by the National Union of Students (NUS) in May 2013 found that one in five students consider themselves to have a mental health problem linked with university workload, exams or financial difficulties. The main causes of mental distress amongst students, according to the survey, were stress and lack of motivation. The same survey also found that sixty-four percent of students, who experience mental health problems, do not use any kind of formal services to get help and advice. So, why are students not using the services available to them?

According to the survey, students are more likely to speak to family or friends if they are experiencing anxiety, rather than a doctor or counsellor. This highlights the usefulness and effectiveness of talking about how you may be feeling with people you feel comfortable talking to, and those who can support you. However, this perhaps also points to an underlying issue that mental health problems are still not widely talked about on a societal level, which has led to a stigma forming around the subject.

Although, unlike getting ill physically, where there are clear signs and symptoms, such as a high temperature or running nose, mental health problems differ in that it is not always visible that someone has an illness and how fragile it can make a person feel. For instance, depression has been described as a ‘black dog’ by the charity SANE, a metaphor which presents the physical presence of depression that a sufferer can feel of what is otherwise, an invisible condition. This is also the basis of their Black Dog campaign, which aims to educate and create dialogue about mental health issues, using the hashtag ‘StopStigma’ to prevent people suffering in silence and to seek help.

Many mental health charities and campaigns are aimed at tackling this stigma. The mental health charity Mind has advice online about adjusting to university when suffering with a mental health issue and encourages students to talk to those around them and find ways to cope with the changes of coming to university. Since October 2007, charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness have teamed up for the ‘Time to Change’ programme, a campaign aiming to ‘challenge mental health stigma and discrimination’ with the slogan and hashtag ‘ItsTimeToTalk’. This programme highlights the need for people to voice when they are experiencing mental health difficulties and encourages them to talk about what they have experienced to let others know they are not alone in what they may be facing.

According to a report from the Mental Health Foundation, the most common mental health disorder in Britain that adults experience is anxiety mixed with depression, however, less than nine percent would be able to be diagnosed. Despite many experiencing mental and emotional difficulty in the adult population, ways of seeking help for these common disorders are understated and the maintenance of mental well-being needs to be promoted in order to combat what are now common health issues.

The Gryphon spoke to the Secretary of LUU’s Mind Matters Society, Hannah Tendler, about what action they take and the help they offer as a society:

“Mind Matters is a society that aims to promote positive mental health and reduce the stigma attached to mental illnesses. We run a lot of projects, including getting Leeds students to volunteer in local secondary schools to give students an introduction to mental health, and we also offer weekly welfare support groups available to all Leeds students.”

The Gryphon also asked Jess Reed, President of the Society, how they promote mental well-being and its importance to students, as well as how the society goes about reducing stigma towards mental health and if they have any advice to new students about how to maintain a positive stance toward their own mental health?

“All of the work that Mind Matters does is dedicated to raising awareness about mental health and providing support to anyone who feels they need it. We run campaigns to highlight the importance of mental well-being and in the past have put on workshops about the importance of taking care of your own mental health. We aim to provide a supportive environment where people can come and express themselves without fear of judgement or stigma.

The importance of being aware of mental health is absolutely crucial. Current figures show that one in four people in the UK suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition at any given time, and yet there is still such a strong stigma surrounding it. This is particularly harmful for those suffering poor mental health as it created a barrier to speaking out and seeking support, which can allow the condition to worsen and severely affect people in their day-to-day life. Mental health isn’t something to be feared or avoided, and that is the message that needs to be spread.

My advice to freshers is to really be aware of your mental health. Bear in mind that drinking, a lack of routine, poor diet and sleep patterns can all have a negative effect on mental health, whether you have a diagnosable condition or not. Remember that it is ok to miss a night out and instead to stay in and watch a film or hang out with a friend. Also remember that if you feel like you’re struggling with anything at all there is so much support available through the union and the university, please don’t hesitate to seek it.”

At Leeds, we are lucky enough to have one of the best university unions in the country with several support platforms and services that can provide help in almost every aspect of student life. For the past forty years, Nightline has been running a confidential listening service ‘For when life gets complicated’, which runs during term-time to help Leeds students with anything from getting a taxi home to just having a chat. Also, the Student Counselling Service offers a range of services to help those who are facing difficulties and feel they need more specialised help.

You could also explore the wider range of welfare and general lifestyle societies to find ways to look after you mental well-being; for example, by practicing yoga and meditation. Our Yoga Society at LUU is one of the largest societies on campus and the Meditation Society provides a welcome pause from lectures and studying for many students, which helps to reduce and manage stress. Even taking up a sport or hobby you love can make a difference and improve your mood!

Coming to university is a big change and can be a challenging time for many. Looking after your mental well-being should be just as important as looking after your body. Remembering that you are not alone in your experience as a student and talking about the mental health issues you, or someone you know, may be experiencing can really make a difference.

Stephanie Uwalaka

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