So I am now half way through my more unusual tips for this year’s Freshers. I couldn’t quite decide whereabouts to put this tip; first, last or middle? The reason I pondered about where to put it is because for some students, it won’t be important to them at all. For others, they will think now that it isn’t important, but will sadly turn out to be wrong. So in the end, it is marking the middle of these tips.
A lot of students suffer from mental health problems during their time at university. These may take any of a vast number of forms, all different, but all equally debilitating and deserving and needing of support. For those students who do not themselves suffer from a mental health problem whilst at university, many will have friends or others they know who do.
Having a mental health problem can feel scary. Knowing someone with a mental health problem can feel scary. For both parties it’s often because no-one’s quite sure what to do about it. I am a big believer that the single biggest hurdle is talking about it, hence the title of this post. In the same way you need to eat vegetables for good physical health, talking is good for mental health.
If you are feeling ‘down’ (and by that I include everything from routine transient miserableness that happens to us all, to serious mental illness) at university, please talk to someone about it. Many universities have a fully confidential and anonymous phoneline which is answered all night, so even if it is the middle of night, there will be someone who you can speak to, who will not judge you or tell you what to do, but will listen to you for as long as you need to talk, and whatever you need to talk about (they are usually called NightLine or Linkline). For those at universities without a NightLine/Linkline, or if you need someone to talk to at a time when those lines are closed, the Samaritans run a 24 hour anonymous and confidential telephone service on the same basis; non-judgmental listening.
If you are worried about someone else, then there is no shame in going to your university’s pastoral/welfare support service (whatever form that takes) and telling them that you have concerns. This is not ‘snitching’. If it is someone who you know, even a bit, make an effort to include them if they seem lonely, but be wary of putting too much pressure on them to participate, as for some this may exacerbate their distress. If you yourself are suffering, don’t be afraid to go to welfare/support services and ask for help. If you don’t get the help that you need, keep asking until you do. Many universities offer counselling services internally, and you also have the option of going to your GP for help. Don’t be afraid to be honest with those who teach you as well, especially if the pressure of deadlines is exacerbating the problem. Although many students feel embarrassed by discussing personal issues with academic staff, when it comes to universities, there is nothing new under the sun. Should you encounter unhelpful academic staff (which I sincerely hope you wouldn’t) then, again, mention this to welfare/support services, as this person is probably being unhelpful to more people than just you, and they need to be pulled up on that.
I am not an expert on mental health. But I have seen and experienced first hand the huge difference small acts of reaching out to people who are struggling can make. I encourage all of you to talk. To someone, anyone, if you are feeling low. You may be amazed by the support that fellow students are willing and able to give you; some may even be able to identify with the way you are feeling (whether they say so or not) .
Everyone will have a struggle of some sort at university. It may be major or minor (wanted to put a music joke in there, couldn’t think of one). It may be trying to keep up with the work. It may be trying to get selected for varsity-level sport. It may be the end of a relationship. It may be friendship troubles. It may be family events back home. Whatever it is, DON’T KEEP IT TO YOURSELF. For some people, they will seem to cruise over life’s disappointments, others will become stranded on a speed hump of despair. Don’t judge people for how they react, just because you would have reacted differently.
But my final piece of advice is for everyone. Keep talking. About things that matter. About what is going on in your head. Be honest if you feel sad or homesick or worse. You never know what is going on in a person’s life that they are not telling you. By keeping channels of communication open, and by being honest, we can all set up communities where people can be open about their struggles, and be supported through them. The more people there are offering support, the more support there is to go around.
We can’t all keep calm. But let’s keep talking and we’re half way there.