In support of University Mental Health Day (UMHD) Kim Moore, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at Birmingham City University, talks about mental health support at university and the importance of looking after yourself. 

Talking about how we really feel can be scary; we can often feel isolated in a crowd, lonely in a group and frankly terrified of admitting we have or could be experiencing mental health issues.

Is it worse if you are a new student? Research focusing on the mental health of students in Northern Ireland (NISRA, 2016) highlighted increasing concerns being expressed by students about their mental health.

Are students in England any different? The short answer is no. Like many young people in England you may share some of the same concerns as your peers across the Irish Sea and even closer to home in your own university.

What many of you share is the biggest concern of all – knowing who or where you can go to get support and talk it through.


So where do you start?

There are going to be some obvious trigger points, the first of which might be that you are new to university, you have moved away from home and you are relying on yourself for the first time ever. This is pretty scary stuff. Some of you will be more anxious about this than your families, but for most of you this will quickly pass as you settle into a new routine. There is no set date when this occurs, but for many of you as you make new social networks, friendships and connections with your new life this will fade away.

For some of you this will take longer to adjust and if you have any pre-existing mental health issues this can take some time. It can be useful to bring a piece of home with you into your new environment, something that you have an emotional attachment to. Many people find this is soothing or comforting.

Every new situation is stress provoking and for many of you this will re-occur at each new stage you embark upon. This can include things like moving into student accommodation, starting a new module, going out on placement for the first time or the dreaded module assessment or final exam. The support of your family and peer networks can be helpful as a place to talk out these fears and worries.

Remember that your family are likely going to take this journey with you and experience all of your stresses as you go along and so are your peers, so you will never be truly alone on this journey.  Don’t forget many programmes have peer support workers who have been through this before you – they can offer advice and support to help you manage the demands of your university life.

Before we go any further, it is important to acknowledge that we do need stress in our lives – it does serve a positive function in preparing us and making us more alert, how much stress we have and how we manage those stresses will vary from person to person – but having a range of different coping skills will help you to manage your way through the expected stressful points of university.

You may have more support needs in relation to other mental health conditions like depression, eating disorders and self-harm issues. You might feel that you do not want to disclose these to your peers, however it is still important, when and where you can, to talk these through with someone and this might be within the university or outside of it.

There are a number of local charities and support groups who can offer anonymous support or treatment, but if you just need to talk it out anonymously then you have access to the Big White Wall.


Course work, exam stress and performance anxiety

So let’s talk about the dreaded examinations – every student’s nightmare! No matter what your skills are coming into university, the learning is designed to challenge your thinking and it is something you are going to have to work at. So you can be a very able student and still get anxious about how well you might do reaching for the top results.

The type of assessment you are going to do can add different levels of mental dis-stress; you might feel fine about writing an essay, but panic at an observed clinical examination or viva, the reverse can also be true. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses can help you to prepare for these events and help to reduce, but not eliminate your distress.

So how can you manage these peak times of distress?  First – it’s good to talk about it with your colleagues and peers who are working with you. You are not likely to be alone in what you are feeling and sharing these anxieties and feelings can often help you feel more in control and less isolated.

Second, think about the resources around you, you have friends and family and you have a range of supportive services if you feel that your mental health needs some additional support – so make use of these. You will have a personal tutor and they are able to offer pastoral support. Chaplaincy support is also available, running alongside student services that may be able to direct you to more support services.

Be alert to your own mental health and any changes that are not usual for you, and you can help your friends by checking how they are feeling and noticing any changes in them.


Make it bite-sized

Sometimes we are our own worst enemy and we can make it harder on ourselves than we need to. My favourite is procrastination – yes, there are times when I would rather clean the oven than read my homework or write my essay. But this often leaves me panicking at the last minute – so I have learned to break this down into smaller chunks.

This could be reading time of no more than one hour or nibbling away at an essay. Strangely this strategy seems to give me more social time, so it has its own built in rewards if I stick to it. So, try setting yourself some bite sized activities or goals.


Eat, get active, sleep and repeat

Healthy body healthy mind is really true. Taking care of yourself physically has positive side effects for your mood. But what does this take to achieve? It does not have to be blood sweat and tears. A healthy diet and good hydration are important but you don’t have to join a gym if that’s not you.

You can be physically active by walking or taking the stairs rather than the lift, play one of the games available to you in the student union – table tennis or badminton are great exercise. Join a walking or yoga group; these are being facilitated by the university so not only can you keep active you can develop a new supportive network at the same time.

Not ready for a group, then there are home activities that can keep you active; singing and dancing to your favourite tunes is a great way of keeping active. The final ingredient is sleep. Sleep and mood are interconnected and poor sleep can not only make you grumpy, it can affect your concentration. So, if you can, barring a good night out, make sure you have a good sleep routine – check out the Sleep Health Foundation (Australia) for more advice.


Social media

There has been a lot of comment in the past few months about how social media apps can have a detrimental impact on our mental health. I certainly get stressed by even considering how to use some of these, but researchers don’t know if spending a significant amount of time on social media negatively impacts mood (‘The Week’, 2017) yet there are also benefits to mental health.


 ‘Dr Google’ will see you now…

Most of the general population will reach out to ‘Dr Google’ to diagnose their problems but it can have unwanted effects. There is a lot of advice out there that can be helpful to help you develop strategies to cope with and improve your mental health and wellbeing, but take care with the sites you use. Like any other health problem, in mental health you can read the symptoms of issues like depression or personality disorders and recognise your own experiences, this does not necessarily mean that you have a mental illness – it can just mean that that is how you are feeling at that moment. If you have persistent symptoms, then seek advice from a professional.


What can we do to help our mental wellbeing?

Looking after you is high on the list, but there are many psychosocial and social benefits of volunteering to look out for others. Giving to others of our time and attention has psychological benefits and is not only good for our own mood and sense of self-worth it is also good for theirs – so there are mutual benefits.

We know that singing is good for depression and it has physical health benefits as well (Stuart & Lonsdale, 2016). It does not matter if you can carry a tune, the act of singing by yourself in the shower or with a group has significant mental health benefits.  So when you feel low, sing along to your favourite tune or join a local choir where you will not only get the same benefits you can also develop or widen your social network.

Time out to rest is just as important as balancing your workload. Life often goes on and we all have family and social commitments that we need to attend to, so make sure you take time for these as well.  Plan rest days into your week, make sure that you are able to spend some quality time with friends and family

Try a little colour therapy or pamper yourself. Sometimes little things like a manicure or a pedicure, having a haircut or treating myself with a new shirt can make me feel a lot better – pampering yourself in this way can work to improve your mood. Men have the same psychological needs and many of these strategies will work well for everyone. If you want to know more about colour therapy, check the article by Augustine (2015) on the psychology of colour. For men, check out the for more strategies specific to your needs.


Places to just talk:

Want to have your own time to talk event or just talk among yourselves? Here are some resources you might like:

University Mental Health Day

Time to Talk


Mental Health Awareness Week

Kim Moore is a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at Birmingham City University.

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