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University Mental Health Day: How to support the student in your life

March 5, 2020

Students’ mental health has been prioritised by government organisations and the NHS in recent years. Events like University Mental Health Day (5th March 2020) have been launched to raise awareness of wellbeing in higher education, and to drive positive changes. There’s plenty of advice and resources for students, and members of the university community – but what if you’re a concerned parent, guardian, family member or friend?

If someone you care about is currently at university, or is due to head off soon, you might be thinking about their safety and health, and how they’ll cope. It’s completely natural to be a bit nervous for them, as well as pleased that they’re becoming more independent, and excited about the new opportunities and experiences they’ll have.

In a 2019 poll of UK students conducted by the Insight Network, a team of therapists and psychiatrists, 88% said they struggled with feelings of anxiety, while a third suffered from loneliness.

This is understandable; going to university usually involves leaving home for the first time, and a big upheaval in routine. Students might be likely to drink more, eat more ‘junk’ or take less exercise. They’re under pressure to perform academically, as well as to make friends and integrate socially. Some might face financial pressures, and could be juggling a part-time job alongside their studies. This can be a bit of a ‘perfect storm’.

It can be a difficult and nerve-wracking time for family and friends, as well as the student! But it’s hopefully reassuring to know that most universities have an excellent support network in place on campus, with specialist mental health services staffed by advisors and mentors. These can provide direct support to students who are struggling, as well as connecting them with outside services and helping them to access mainstream therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) through the NHS.

For a student who already has a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, preparation is key. Together, you can research what support services are available, and make contact with them in advance if appropriate. It’s also a good idea to register with a local GP. If the young person has been receiving treatment, or is on the waiting list, they can speak to their healthcare provider to discuss where and when they can access therapy.

Have an open conversation if possible. Talk through the worries and expectations the student may have, and the things that might affect their mood. Encourage them to be mindful of these, and to stick to a healthy routine!

When someone is applying for university through UCAS, there’s the option to disclose a mental health problem on the application. Students who do this will normally be contacted by a trained individual from the university to discuss what support they need.

Some universities offer students the option to say that their families or friends can be contacted if there are serious worries about their wellbeing. However, there’s no obligation for universities to notify anyone, because as adults, students have a right to confidentiality. If this is a worry for you, you could sit down and talk to the student, and encourage them to opt in.

If you have concerns about someone developing a mental health problem while at uni, you can help by being vigilant for any changes in them – for example noticing if they’re contacting you more or less. How do they seem, or sound? Do they appear tired? Have they lost weight?

If you suspect a student is struggling with feelings of depression or anxiety, or they tell you they are, the best thing to do is encourage them to get support as soon as possible. You could also signpost them to websites with resources and content, such as Student Minds.

The faster a mental health difficulty can be addressed, the more likely it is to be resolved speedily. Many areas of the UK offer free access to online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This form of treatment has very short waiting times, which can make it an excellent option for those at uni. Find out whether online CBT is available for your family member or friend.

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