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University Mental Health Day- How to Support a Student

University Mental Health Day- How to Support a Student

Today [Thursday 9th March 2023] is University Mental Health Day, Movember’s Sarah Coghlan looks at how you can help a student who might be struggling with their mental health

FOLLOWING the disruption caused by the pandemic over the last few years, young people are now facing mental health challenges on an unprecedented scale.

According to official data, the proportion of 17–19-year-olds in England with a probable mental health disorder increased from 17.4% in 2021 to 25.7% in 2022[i].

For the UK’s 2.3million students, academic pressures, financial worries due to the rising cost of living and loneliness can all impact mental wellbeing. Recent research by the charity Student Minds found that one in three students said they had poor mental wellbeing. One in four students surveyed would not know where to go to get mental health support at university if they needed it.

Whether you’re a tutor, teaching administrator or research supervisor, you’re likely to be seeing students on a regular basis and you may be the first person to spot someone who is struggling.

We know that, on average, 50% of mental health problems are established by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24[ii] so intervening early can make a huge difference in preventing minor issues becoming something more complex and serious later down the line. Whatever your role, there are many things you can do to help.

Spotting a student who might need support

In some cases, there might not be any signs that something is amiss, or you might not have met that student before. However, for students who you are familiar with, there are signs to watch out for including:

  • Erratic or unpredictable behaviour such as becoming withdrawn, unusually quiet or becoming aggressive or agitated.
  • Lack of self-care, such as poor personal hygiene, dishevelled appearance, or significant weight changes.
  • Frequent lateness or absence from tutorials or lectures.
  • Missing deadlines for assignments or a sudden drop in the standard of their work.

Ask them how they are feeling

If you have a feeling something is not quite right, talk to the student. You won’t make things worse by asking. Movember produces free interactive resources atMovember Conversationson how to support someone who might be struggling and practice open conversations.

Here are some tips for having what might be a difficult conversation:

It’s important to find the right time and place to have sensitive conversations. It could be hard to focus if there are a lot of people around or a lecture is about to begin. Try and find somewhere private, calm, and appropriate to help them feel at ease and open to sharing.

Open-ended questions, that require more than a one-word answer, are a great way to stimulate meaningful conversations, keep it flowing and give the other person a chance to share more information.

Start by asking how they are feeling. “You haven’t seemed yourself lately… are you feeling OK?” is a good opener.

Listen to what they say

Listening is more than just hearing someone. Being a good listener requires focus. Everyone needs the ear of someone they can trust, and to feel like they’re being heard and understood when they speak. Listen to understand rather than listening to respond. If you need to better understand something they’ve said, it’s OK to ask more questions for clarification.

You are not expected to have all the answers, but to reassure them that help is available if they need it. Encourage the student to share as much or as little as they want, but don’t press them to provide details if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.

If the student makes comments that indicate a potential risk of harm to themselves or others, including suicidal thoughts, do not agree to keep this confidential.

Encourage them to take action

Unless the student is in crisis, try to empower them to make their own decisions. Remind them that seeking help is a valid and necessary investment in their wellbeing. Men can find it particularly hard to talk about how they feel, much less get the help they need, because of the stigma around it. Lots of men are taught from an early age that they have to appear ‘tough’ or ‘strong’, and that emotion is a sign of weakness.

If appropriate, encourage the student to reach out to student support services available at your university. If the student finds it uncomfortable talking face-to-face, then online support may be a better option. Many universities offer this via Togetherall, a forum where people can find self-help resources, chat with peers, and talk to counsellors on a one-to-one basis. Peer support is also available at most universities through Nightline, a phone, email and online chat service staffed by student volunteers or online through Student Space.

If they express immediate plans to harm themselves or others, then this is a crisis and they should receive urgent support. Encourage them to seek help or help them to contact NHS 111 for support or listening services, such as Samaritans on 116 123 (freephone) or free 24/7 crisis text service Text SHOUT to 85258. If you are worried that they are in immediate danger, call 999 or go directly to the emergency services.

Check in with them

Put a date in your diary to check in with the student again and see how they are getting on.Asking questions such as “How have you been since we last spoke?” or “How has your sleeping/mood been we last spoke?” or ‘How has your mood been since last week?’ sends a clear message to them that you care and that you’re genuinely in their corner.

Ask if they’ve sought professional help or if they’ve given it any thought (if it was something they said they’d do). You could ask, “How did you go getting in contact with….”

Remember to look after yourself

Supporting someone with their mental health can take a toll on your own wellbeing. Be clear about the boundaries of your role and work within them. You will have limits in terms of the amount of time and personal resource you have for supporting a student. Be aware of the impact it is having in terms of your own stress and anxiety and don’t let it overstep your boundaries. Make sure that you take care of yourself and remember that support is also available for staff through your university’s occupational health services.

By Sarah Coghlan, Global Director for Men’s Health Promotion at Movember

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