How should we approach mental health at university?

Inspired by Mental Health Awareness Week, student blogger Orli West looks at how mental health is dealt with in the exciting but stressful university environment

May 22, 2018 08:51

Last week (14th-20th May) was Mental Health Awareness Week. According to, two thirds of us will experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes, which is an enormous amount. In recent weeks, I know of multiple people who have committed suicide. Although I have never had to feel the pain of losing someone like that, several people close to me have had to watch their closest friends struggle with their mental health struggles. University is a time when mental health can be at its most precarious, and, as we meet new friends at university and have new experiences, we will encounter different approaches to life.

Recently on social media and in society in general, it has become much more acceptable to discuss mental health disorders. As someone who is a huge advocate for talking about a problem (and continuing to talk, and talk, and talk if necessary), I feel that this is a huge win for anyone struggling with mental health. Although it is not easy, and there are still stigmas attached, reaching out for help and being open about diagnoses is now much more accepted than it used to be.

The issue with more open mental health discussion is that it tends to be more easily trivialised. I have lost count of the amount of times someone has said something like “this kitchen is so untidy, it triggers my OCD” or “Love Island doesn’t start for a month, I’m so depressed.”  I have also lost count of the amount of times I have wanted to shake the person who says it and shout at them that they most likely have no idea what those mental health disorders involve, and how it’s so much more than they assume. Depression is more than just being sad, bi-polar is more than just having a day with a couple of mood swings, anxiety is more than just being nervous before an exam.

That said, I think that it is important to know what some of the signs are, so that we can recognise changes in ourselves or those we care about. Key early symptoms of most mental health disorders are changes in sleeping or eating habits, social withdrawal, growing inability to cope with daily activities and responsibilities and prolonged negative moods. Although these symptoms seem scary, they are all manageable with the right support system and coping methods.

Therefore, I am going to give you three ways to support someone you care about who is struggling with their mental health:

  1. Be there for them! This doesn’t necessarily mean taking them to doctor’s appointments or making sure they take their medicine… just make sure they know you’re there. Ask them what they will need on a bad day, and follow it. Do they need food? Space? A hug? Each person is different but let them know you’ll do whatever you can to help.
  2. Listen to them! As mentioned, each person’s experience with mental health is different. Some people don’t want to talk, but lots of people do, as long as they know you want to listen. Reassure them that you’ll be there whether it’s two in the morning or two in the afternoon, and try and stick to that (as long as it doesn’t impact on your physical and mental health).
  3. Validate their feelings! You have no idea what a person is going through and what’s going on in their head. Please, if you take anything away from this, don’t tell someone with depression to “just cheer up!” or something with anxiety to “calm down”. It doesn’t help. Let the person know that how they feel is valid, and that you’re there to support them.

The point is: mental health is hard. It is confusing, and stressful and upsetting to see someone you love hurting or struggling. But you aren’t expected to fix it. Let the person know that you will be there on both the good days and the bad, and remember that sometimes the smallest act of care can make a big difference.

Orli West is in her second year at Birmingham University where she is studying Education.

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May 22, 2018 08:51

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