Monday 8 June 2015

How to Push the Stigma Out Of Student Mental Health

- Olivia Niblock

University. To use the old cliché – the ‘best’ days of your life. To use the truth – some of the most difficult days of your life, especially if you have mental health difficulties. Not only are there looming deadlines, social pressures and the overwhelming desire to do well, there are also expectations – including the expectation to enjoy yourself at every single minute or risk being branded as ‘boring’. 

As a result of this realisation that not all students are out every night getting tiddly and that there are a large majority (1/4) students who have some sort of mental difficulty, many universities have reacted. Look on any university website and search ‘Advice and Counselling’, either now or when you have some spare time, or are researching which university you would want to go to. You should come up with a page something like this:

advice and counselling example pic.png

(Additionally – thanks to Queen Mary – the university I attended for the help and support they gave me during my time there)

However, the fact of the matter is, the majority of people who could benefit from this service do not use it. There is a stigma that is hard to shift from mental health in pretty much every community, as well as students. A study by NUS – the main student body in this country – found in 2013 that only 1/10 students who self-identified as having mental health issues actually approached their advice and counselling service for help - this in addition to the fact that 26% of the people that identified as having mental health issues had no treatment at all. No treatment can mean that you feel isolated, as though it’s you against the world of fears and anxieties. Find the report on the NUS study here.

Apart from stigma, I was trying to think about why students who need help are not going to these services. Is it worries about being plied with pills and not ‘treated’? I had the same worries before I went to seek help at my local GP, as worries about my exams, results, social life, work life, future life etc. were blocking my mind. Some of the first words that came out of my mouth to the GP were ‘drug free’. I was prescribed one to one CBT. Going into the CBT experience was a life-changing one for me – I went in with an open (but worry-crowded) mind and came out with a much clearer organised mind. My worries did not go away – but I certainly had the tools to tell them to stop bothering me when they started to get annoying.

But for many conditions, there are medications that can really help – and some people find that they respond better to medication then they do talking therapies, whilst others believe that the combination of both medication and talking therapies is the best way forward for them. If the treatment works for you, and you are made aware of any health concerns or long-term consequences – it can only be good, can’t it?

Secondly, it came to mind that students may feel as though their problem isn’t worth it, or they don’t want to ‘waste’ someone’s time. Again, this feeling is relatable; we are always reminded that someone is much worse off than us and that we ‘mustn’t grumble’ about our own problems. Yes, there may be people you perceive to be worse off than us, but does that mean that your problems don’t affect you? No. Does it mean that your problems aren’t valid? Absolutely not. And if we’ve learnt anything from mental health, it’s that it’s better to treat early and prevent degradation, rather than waiting for a crisis point. Listen to this TED talk by Brené Brown.

In fact, if you’re scientifically inclined, listen to most of the TED talks, they’re very good (most of them).

Thirdly, relating to the stigma of mental health, students may feel as though people will judge them for using the service, especially prospective friends. I can understand this feeling, but luckily for me, it was dispelled almost immediately when one of my earliest university friends took me aside and told me she was being treated for depression and taking antidepressants. My mind suddenly felt at ease. I wasn’t alone in struggling with the anxiety of university. Imagine 1 in 4 people. Imagine a friendship group of 8. If you have an anxiety disorder or depression, or any other mental health issue, chances are at least one other person in that group will be in the same metaphorical boat. This makes the conversation of not going to a party because you are afraid of having a massive panic attack and embarrassing yourself much more open and free, and at the end of it all, much less ‘embarrassing’. 

(Picture from ‘Grieving: It’s ok not to be Ok’ blog post by Fredda Jones,

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