Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Building mental health communities at university

As part of University Mental Health Day, Julia discusses the importance of building communities for students to talk about shared experiences of mental health in university.

- Julia

Coming to university having quietly struggled with mental health, I was keen to be involved in extracurricular activities and to build myself circles of friends. It has always been a coping mechanism if mine to find friends with common interests and surround myself with them. From choirs and music ensembles to other student journalists, engaging in shared interests has always been so important to me for my mental wellbeing.

During my first year, I was encouraged to seek out further help and relatively quickly, having struggled quite substantially, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was then that, as well as my friends and extracurricular communities, I started to engage with mental health communities in my university. Or rather, I started some communities myself. Joining the Students’ Disability Community and becoming actively involved and engaged in that, I was quickly elected to Mental Health Officer. I became aware that lots of students did not want to become involved in physical support groups because that was an intimidating step, so I created online support groups for Oxford Students on Facebook. These were all secret but could allow students to discuss struggles and shared experiences with services in the city. There are now six support groups for different mental health conditions, supporting over 500 students, and some groups have met in person now. Even though advertising these groups among the university community, it enriches the community in the normalization of mental health difficulties.

It can be easy to feel isolated at university when you have a mental health difficulty, and speaking to other students who also share experiences of mental health difficulties can make you feel less alone. Meeting with the bipolar support group for the first time, the other students and I shared our experiences – laughed at similar situations we’ve been in, and empathized with the bad experiences. It was so reassuring to be part of a community who understood what I’d been through.

Even now that I am stable and don’t feel that I need much support on a day to day basis, I still like to engage with other students who have struggled or are struggling with mental health difficulties. When you are part of universities communities, whether a sports team, a musical group, or a college at your university, talking frankly and sharing experiences make mental health normal for the whole community. Students I don’t know personally have approached me because my openness means that they feel comfortable talking, often for the first time, about concerns or struggles that they have had. To me, this exemplifies why community is so important for mental health and why it is the perfect theme for University Mental Health Day. Both on a personal level of support from the communities we surround ourselves with, and also seeing the change that happens to communities as we talk, without shame, about mental health.

Take action and be part of a growing movement to transform the state of student mental health. Join a Student Minds group on your campus or set up a group today

I'm Julia, and I'm currently studying music at the University of Oxford. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during my first year and, since then, have dedicated my time to talking about mental health. As well as writing for the blog, I am one of the sub-editors and have been involved with Student Minds as a press ambassador, a peer support facilitator, and on their Student Voices Forum and Student Policy Panel. I'm also the Oxford editor for Blueprint, a student mental health magazine, and the mental health officer the Oxford SU disability campaign. I feel strongly about discussing aspects of mental health, such as hypomania or mania that accompanies my bipolar disorder, to reduce the taboo.

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