Thursday 2 April 2015

Why I set up Student Minds

- Nicola Byrom, Founding Director of Student Minds

At the start of 2015 I received the Queen’s Young Leaders Award (completely blown away). The award came with a request that I reflect back on why I launched Student Minds. In many ways it is simple: student mental health is important for good academic success, a decent quality of life and a promising future. The university environment is not always supportive; moving away from home, living independently, having an unstructured timetable, etc. can all lead to students feeling lost and lonely. When there are simple things that we can do to help people talk to each other and break down this loneliness: it’s simple – we should be doing all of the simple things! 

Founding Student Minds was motivated by my own experiences. At university I became aware of many students who were struggling and felt that no one talked enough about these struggles. However, I was not just aware of other people’s struggles. I struggled. I found the unstructured schedule, the pressure to do well and to conform to the “student stereotype” challenging. At the time, I thought I was managing university okay. Looking back, it is clearer now that, university was difficult.

There is a chilly winter morning which sticks in my mind. I was up before dawn (not difficult in a British winter!) to go for a run with my uber fit housemate. We’d do this run several times a week, early in the morning, around the lake at the University. It was great running with her; she paced me. I digress. That morning, she realised that I had been self-harming.

It is hard to explain why anyone would self-harm. I think I felt that it calmed me down, but it is a bit more complicated. I was stressed and lonely, something I know now is mind-blowingly common among students. The lack of structure and limited feedback from lecturers and tutors leaves most students wondering whether they are doing the right work, enough work, well enough etc. Throw in just a slight touch of perfectionism and you have a nightmare scenario. With only four contact hours a week, it was very easy to spend the large majority of the week alone. I wasn’t a complete recluse. I ate lunch and supper with my housemates and occasionally met friends for tea or a drink. I put in appearances at parties. But the reality is, for many students, that work means sitting at a desk alone and this makes university life is inherently lonely!

I saw stress and loneliness as failings. I was good at beating myself up mentally about these. This mental self-abuse would build up, you might expect me to say, until I physically wanted to hurt myself. It wasn’t quite like that. The mental self-abuse was so exhausting that I wanted an excuse to be kind to myself. I rationalised that if I was physically hurt, I could be kind to myself.

(If you relate to this… it is okay to be kind to yourself, indeed, it is practical, sensible, productive and, well good for your mental health… today I do Yoga, go for walks, how a bath, play with the strange cat that comes visiting from I don’t know where, watch T.V., cook, talk to friends, I’ve event learnt how to knit… all these things really do work!)

That morning, I did not talk to my housemate about the self-harm, but from that day onwards, I didn’t need to talk to her about it either. She knew. She also knew that she was way out of her depth. We both knew that it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to talk and explain why I was self-harming, I couldn’t have explained even if she’d asked – I didn’t know. She was comfortable not talking and just spending time with me being my friend and this really helped!

(See our Fantastic Look after Your Mate guide for 100’s of ideas on how to do this – both the talking and not talking bit!)

I know that friends make the world of difference to our mental health. University was challenging for me because I’d moved away from old friends and established support networks. I had to re-build my support network anew. I wish it had been easier to talk to my peers, to talk openly, because when the self-harm was out in the open, the urge to self-harm faded and the stress became manageable. My motivation in setting up Student Minds really was simple: University life can be very difficult, but it doesn’t need to be lonely.

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