By Sadie Fox
The answer is yes. Unequivocally, irrefutably, yes. This topic of mental health is a pressing matter due to its widespread and ever-growing nature, the rising awareness and exposure to it in popular culture and the availability of information, misinformation and the valiant attempts to de-stigmatize mental health. Some of the pressing statistics that were up on the boards behind the panellists heads confirmed this, 68.5% of the student population alone experience mental health issues, and these figures were from the national student survey, the likelihood is the numbers are in fact a lot higher. Why is it such a prominent phenomena in students and what are the changes we can take to prevent this ever growing issue rather than just tending to the symptoms of a deeper issue?
The Student Union Welfare Committee at UWE hosted a panel discussion; the findings from the Student Wellbeing Survey were displayed behind the panellists on the screens. A variety of panel members covering the topic of the student mental health crisis consisted of a range of 5 experienced and accessible, real people who have experienced mental health first hand through their position of work and own personal lives. These people are actively trying to make an effort through the organisations they tie their names to, the first being Laura Brain, a very down to earth and clearly very involved in the work she does with Off the Record.
Off the Record is a mental health social movement aimed at 11-25 year olds, providing support for the healthy mental and emotional development and focusing on wellbeing for the mind. Off the Record provides a wide range of services that are free, confidential and independent for young people, easy to navigate online and use the physical services they provide. Youth programmes such as community venues, for young people to live, hang out and go to school in Bristol, Bath and Midsomer Norton. Programmes like this could be revolutionary in the steps towards focusing on mental and emotional wellbeing and preventing mental health issues for any young person rather than solely tackling the problems after they arise.
Laura put forth this idea of a unification of the mind and body to get people to look at their mind the same way they look at their body. Exercise it like a muscle, we need to get out any negativity and work it out like a warm up and warm down, we need to treat it well in order to perform well in life in general. There are symptoms that occur physically in the body that arise through stress, lack of sleep, eating poorly and not looking after your brain, of course this is obvious when you begin to think about it, things that we may not necessarily link to being related to the brain, that are abstract symptoms of a deeper underlying cause that can then take root and cause numerous other issues, both physical and mental. We need to take this into consideration especially in regards to this dependency on medication as the first viable option, which is what seems to be the case when you make the long anticipated first step into trying to actually make a change in your life and are greeted with no questions, no diagnosis just, well, try taking these and we’ll see what happens, from a certified medical profession, most of the time you’re not going to question it. I am not dismissing the importance of medication and how much of a necessity it is in some cases and I’m not trying to create this hierarchy of mental health issues either, but with some forms of anxiety and depression for example the problem can be heightened by a heavy sense of life dissatisfaction and seemingly unavoidable decisions like masking issues with unhealthy coping mechanisms that need to be acknowledged on a personal level. Of course the case seems to be a lot of the time that it’s a vicious cycle and the only way of dealing with things without any kind of intervention or help, so who’s really to say, awareness and understanding the way your own body works is the first step in changing things. Medication can be used to get you back up to a state of mind in which you can handle things and then begin to make changes to your life, so this is why we need to have a level of awareness to see what works for oneself beforehand and not just sticking with a standardized mental wellbeing package.
Another of the panellists speaking was Ilyas Nagdee. Before he began campaigning on the inequality of ethnic diversity in education and work against racism to raise awareness for global justice, representing over 1.5 Million Students of Colour in Further and Higher Education; he worked with the NUS as the Diversity Officer at the University of Manchester.
With his personal experience and his active role as an advocate he was the perfect panel member to take issues regarding ethnic diversity and the lack of cultural diversity within mental health services throughout the university. The biggest issue that cropped up was in regards to how, when someone from a culturally diverse or racially diverse background seeks help regarding the isolation that comes from being in this situation, can one expect to find respite and understanding if the people who you are talking to are from the same background of the people you are feeling ostracized from? There was focus on the lack of ethnic diversity in mental health services in Universities, you do not have the apt means of support for certain things that affect someone from a cultural perspective when the person you have gone to has absolutely no idea of the issues that culture faces. For example homosexuality, and someone struggling with their sexual identity in an environment that doesn’t allow this behaviour, perhaps religiously and thus having to deny to yourself and your closest family members a crucial aspect of yourself at all times isn’t going to have the most positive affect on your mental stability and self-identity.
Steve West, the face of the university as Vice chancellor took on board this request and addressed the issue with talk of vetting all applications for roles within the UWE wellbeing teams and said in the future he would make sure there would be as many varied and experienced members of the team with cultural understanding and backgrounds, a training programme would be undertaken to allow other members to recognize and in turn be of help to a student in need of this kind of help.
Professor Steve West was the penultimate panellist, he took up the post of Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of the West of England Bristol in 2008, with a broad range of medical understanding from his roles in the NHS previously (He worked as a clinician and clinical tutor in the NHS, University Sector) he then went on to undertake research and consultancy in industry and the retail healthcare sectors. He holds a number of national and international advisory appointments in Higher Education and in his discipline, healthcare policy and practice including, Non-Executive Director for HEFCE, Board Member of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and Chair of the UK Mental Health in Higher Education Working Group. He is also a member of both the Education and Diversity Honours Committees. He is Chair of the West of England LEP and Vice-Chair of the CBI South West. Steve is Chair of the Learning for and in Work Challenge Group and Board Member of the Learning City Partnership Board. He is Chair of the West of England Academic Health Science Network (WEAHSN) and Non-Executive Designate on United Hospitals Bristol Foundation Trust Board. With a lot of titles to his name he seemed to be a fitting face to be sat aboard the panellists, he took on questions in regards to funding and how we can make changes within the university’s wellbeing services. There was a lot of talking the talk that came from Steve in regards to funding and problem solving, it is merely a matter of time before we hope to see some changes and he will in fact, walk the long and treacherous walk to mental wellbeing and equality.
Last but not least on the panel was a student from UWE, Leila. Leila is a third year undergraduate student studying Psychology with Criminology; she has a specific interest in mental health and social care and is hoping to go into this field after she graduates. Having studied Psychology and also being amongst the student population, Leila has been privy to the extreme prevalence of mental health issues and the impacts this can have on student’s wellbeing, attendance, and ability to cope with the pressures that student life brings. Leila was a humbling and eye-opening member of the panel due to her continued studies and her strong involvement in UWE’s Nightline. She volunteers with Nightline and has witnessed first hand the importance of increasing the support and awareness about wellbeing services and welcoming discussion regarding the current mental health crisis amongst students and broadening the services available to students. She discussed the importance of UWE’s nightline service, which is a listening service operating ‘out of hours’ 8pm until 8am. It’s open every night of term and is manned by trained volunteers set to answers emails and phone calls from students about anything that’s worrying them. Whether the problem stems from financial issues, pre-existing mental health issues and trouble adjusting, sexual identity or nothing at all, if the issue has got to the point of students dropping out of their courses and probably having reached a point in their head where a future (or at least the future they thought they wanted or had in mind) was also lost, becoming insular and out of touch with themselves and friends and family, this is where nightline comes in, an anonymous and confidential service that you can access on this number 011732 82468.
What I took out of the general discussion was that although there are a lot of things put in place to help this race toward the awareness of mental well being, changing the language we use to be more positively centred and aimed towards prevention rather than cure, there are still several factors we need to take heed of and still a long way to go. This panel discussion alone though shows that more people are standing up and paying attention, fighting for these services and giving a voice to those who may not feel comfortable doing so or have the means to do so! As someone who has dealt with mental health issues first hand, this is such a wonderful thing to witness, people coming together to work through issues that may arise and taking those steps to de-stigmatize these issues and so people realise that it is common, and normal to experience these things and in fact, isolating one-self from the issue generates more stigma associated with it.
Here are some places to go if you want to get some anonymous and confidential help or also to volunteer at:
https://www.thestudentsunion.co.uk/soc/UWENightline/ – UWE Nightline
http://www.otrbristol.org.uk/ – Off the Record Bristol
http://bristolmind.org.uk/ – Mind, Bristol
http://www1.uwe.ac.uk/students/healthandwellbeing/wellbeingservice.aspx – UWE’s support options