In addition to pumping more money into mental health services, shouldn’t we be encouraging university students to feel comfortable asking for help?
The scene is still vivid in my mind. My best friend sitting me down in the kitchen of our dingy university flat, finally addressing the elephant in the room.
“I think you need help.” The words slapped me in the face.
I was 21, and that was the first time in my life anyone had discussed my own mental health with me.
It’s a scene played up and down across the country. According to the UK Government, one in four university students face mental health issues.
Here in Wales, the National Assembly announced last month that it would be dedicating £2 million to mental health services for university students.
Universities themselves are at the frontline of mental health provision for these students, and any extra support for these services is an important step.
How can academic tutors be best supported and resourced to support their student's mental health? For many students, academics are often the first point of contact, we explored the #InvisibleFrontLine: https://t.co/Tuq7WRT1Gf #AcademicTutors #SecretLife pic.twitter.com/C5daVTneBK
— Student Minds (@StudentMindsOrg) March 25, 2019
“I hope that universities will be able to use this funding to improve the support and services they offer students, such as bilingual and online support,” says Gwyneth Sweatman, NUS Wales President.
“It’s also important that students are able to access support and services across different campuses,” she adds.
Such increases in mental health provision are much-needed, that much is clear. However, speaking as someone who has experienced mental illness at university, there is one problem that I’m scared will persist no matter how much money is spent.
From my own experience, reaching out for help was the last thing I wanted to do when I could barely get myself dressed in the morning.
It can be terrifying to pluck up the courage to ask for help in the first place, even if you realise there is a problem.
This is a common issue here in the UK, with 37% of students admitting they feel uncomfortable discussing their mental health with friends or family.
For the first three years of my own four-year undergraduate degree, I was too frightened to disclose what I was going through for fear of being judged. The thought of talking to friends didn’t even cross my mind and I was too anxious to reach out to mental health services for help.
I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if that friend hadn’t sat me down and confronted me.
It was speaking so frankly about the issue that gave me the confidence I needed to speak to a doctor and the university mental health services, and get the ball rolling in confronting the problem.
But why do people find it so difficult to talk about mental health in the first place?
According to the Mental Health Foundation, people’s problems are made worse by the stigma and discrimination they experience — from society, but also from families, friends and employers.
They add that nearly nine out of ten people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives.
As a means of tackling stigma around mental wellbeing, over the last couple of years, campaign groups such as Samaritans Cymru have called for mental health education in Welsh schools.
“It’s just as important as road safety.”
— Samaritans (@samaritans) April 1, 2019
The Welsh Assembly has announced it will begin planning a new strategy for tackling mental health in schools, looking at measures such as early intervention for students and a change of curriculum.
England have made a similar move, and are including mental wellbeing as part of the curriculum from September 2019 onwards. Both cases are a welcome first step.
Perhaps if we were to encourage open conversations about mental wellbeing in schools, we could normalise it from a young age and prevent mental illness from becoming such a taboo topic in the first place.
Just as sex education has become a normal part of the school curriculums over the past few decades, mental health and wellness education could do the same.
It’s this level of normalisation which I feel we need to bring to the conversation surrounding mental health here in Wales and the UK as a whole.
Today, I’m lucky enough to have friends that I can sit in the pub with and discuss mental health like any other topic of conversation. This should be the norm, not the exception.