University life presents a unique challenge. The move itself can unsettle even the most assured of individuals; from social and academic pressures, to the responsibilities of independent living, it comes as little surprise that 89 per cent of students are reported to feel more anxious after arrival. Despite this, the healthcare system does little to compensate, with postcode lotteries and notoriously long waiting times.
The voice of Student Minds is, consequently, invaluable for the unsung student predicament. I caught up with charity spokesperson, Anoushka Bonwick, to discuss the challenges and resolutions for mental health at University. Nearly two months into the first term, we start on the topic of those tentative first steps in the University bubble.
“It is important to start your degree with an awareness of the expectations.” Part of this can involve challenging your prior expectations. “Very few people actually experience the ‘best time of their life’,” Anoushka stresses. At the mention of this Freshers mantra, we are both quick to laugh it off with anecdotal stories to the contrary. With the NUS reporting that 50-70% of students experience homesickness in their first term, it is evident that this sentiment is not uncommon.
“The reality is that a lot of people feel very nervous and overwhelmed by the change. It’s so important that you don’t put too much pressure on yourself.” If this fabled line is little more than fabrication, we have to question why it still exists. Yet when it comes to the student story, unwarranted pressure could be a universal title. It is little wonder that so many of us fall into a trap of crippling self-doubt.
Student Minds has responded to this with an array of online resources. “We have a blog on the website, where people can share their stories, in addition to our monthly newsletter Mind Matters.” Both resources are free and open to student submissions.
“We also have a dedicated Starting University page, which offers guidance for settling in. Some of the advice is quite simple, but can be overlooked.” Included in this are “having a stash of teabags and biscuits for group situations” – I can personally confirm that Betty Crocker brownies are a hit – and a reminder that “it’s never too late to become involved in a new society.”
In addition, the charity regularly shares wellbeing posts. ‘Overcoming Homesickness’, written by Anoushka’s Student Minds colleague Rosanna, emphasises the value of small details: “make your room a cosy space with photos and fairy lights”, “have a favourite mug” and “do something familiar like watching an old TV series”. Anoushka also stresses the importance of self-care: “you shouldn’t be afraid to take time for yourself”, alluding to her earlier advice on managing expectations.
Nutrition also plays a central role in wellbeing, which Student Minds recognises. “We have a dedicated recipe blog,” Anoushka informs me. On The Kitchen you can find posts titled “making friends with oil” and “the secret to cooking in bulk.” The emphasis on healthy and number-free cooking is clear.
Though much of the website has universal reach, Anoushka also wants to address specific support for mental illness. “If you have a history of mental illness, we recommend researching local support services.” However, with mental health services already pushed to breaking point, this is easier said than done. There is also the issue of the postcode lottery. “The NHS support you receive in certain places is better than other,” Anoushka concedes.
This is where the value of community support is evident. Along with research into NHS services, Anoushka also suggests “scouting out what help is available on campus.” In addition to the wellbeing services provided by most Universities, Student Minds has also established a strong presence on-campus.
As the only charity in the UK dedicated exclusively to student mental health, Student Minds recognises the equal importance of its presence offline.
“There are currently 36 societies around the UK, which are affiliated to Student Minds. These include campaign groups and peer intervention. We were really delighted to launch the ‘Look After your Mate’ initiative, which will provide student and staff with the tools to support mental health.” The LAYM guide has been shared on dozens of campuses, while the campaign has generated a variety of themed training workshops and support groups.
Exeter’s own Mind Your Head has regular Share Your Story nights, bringing students together in a safe and supportive environment. With 326 members, society support is at an all-time-high. Anoushka is keen to recognise the significance of this, which reflects the national picture.
“Public imagination is definitely starting to be captured, with mental health given a bigger media profile. Now we’ve seen Jeremy Corbyn bringing in a mental health minister, which shows that parliament is also responding.”
On this note, I express regret that this has not been mirrored in the government itself. “That’s the next step” Anoushka replies with confidence. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, I also enquire about the legacy of Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP and former Minister of State for Care and Support.
“He was very well respected”, Anoushka acknowledges, with the passage of the Care Act and establishment of maximum waiting times – which previously did not exist – among his list of achievements. “It is frustrating that he was coming to the end of his time, just as big changes were being made. The Liberal Democrats were strong advocates for mental health in the last government.”
These changes she references include the 2014 ‘Closing the Gap’ report, which Mr Lamb signed alongside then-deputy PM Nick Clegg. Is the absence of Conservative signatures on the report a concern?
“We will definitely be getting in touch with Norman Lamb’s successor,” Anoushka ensures. Alistair Burt is the new minister in question, whose former position in the Foreign Office seems somewhat incompatible with the new role. Anoushka does express regret at Lamb’s departure; however, as one of the few Liberal Democrats to hold onto his seat, she is “confident he will continue to be a voice for mental health in parliament.”
In the face of Anoushka’s optimism, I admittedly feel somewhat defeatist. Though these Westminster voices do have value, while Downing Street remains silent I see little cause for celebration. In an attempt to reverse my outlook, I mediate that the rise of public interest will ultimately incite change. With this in mind, we move onto the subject of social media.
Once again, Anoushka is quick to extol the positives. “Facebook and Twitter means we are more connected, so we are not as detached from home as previously”. For students who are unsettled, the ability to communicate with family and friends can be a huge comfort. “It also reduces the likelihood of them visiting home soon after arrival, which can worsen homesickness in the long-run.”
I can attest to the grounding nature of a snapshot from home – in my case, this regularly includes a snapchat picture of my parents on a dogwalk. On the mention of dogs, I recollect the famous “puppy room” that took Exeter campus by storm last year. Anoushka enthusiastically endorses this. “Projects like those are perfect for wellbeing.”
I also suggest that these kinds of activities are an important balance for our ‘social media generation’. She agrees. “Anything that gets people out and interacting is great. It is so important that you don’t become isolated and also keep talking to people.
Talk: it is the buzzword for any discussion on mental health. Yet for those struggling with a mental illness, that first step can be the most daunting one of all. In many cases, establishing trust takes a great deal of time and perseverance. Thanks to the Internet, communication can be bridged between postcodes.
“Social media opens new possibilities for maintaining contact”, Anoushka affirms. “Looking into ways that you can maintain contact with support back home could help to ease the transition period”. Among the options are Skype and FaceTime, which would “allow for sustained contact with an existing therapist.”
Given the transitory nature of University life, the value of this support cannot be underestimated. Anoushka confirms this. “Students are a migratory population, moving between home and term time addresses. There is already difficulty in receiving treatment, even when registered permanently to one place. Because waiting lists are often several months long, by that time you may be back at home.” I can personally attest to this, having been offered an initial therapy session the same week I was due to return home for summer.
On mention of this, Anoushka references a Minds report that 92% of professionals felt treatment was negatively impacted by the migration between postcodes. I feel an unsettling mix of reassurance and dismay. Though there is slight comfort knowing that I am not an “exception to the rule”, the rule itself is troubling. How can it be the norm to wait months for treatment? To be put at the bottom of a new waiting list, purely because you ran out of time on the first one?
In response to these pressing issues, Student Minds launched their Transitions campaign in March 2014. “We needed to look into ways that support can be more consistent for students and not broken up by holidays. We are also calling for a clear way to transfer services, where GPs will always know a patient’s history.”
While the system is unmistakably flawed, the support offered by individuals cannot be questioned. “There are a lot of really fantastic individuals working to provide the best services to students.” At Mind Your Head’s “Share your Story” night in October, many students openly endorsed the support of GPs at the Student Health Centre. In many cases, this sees them go far beyond their remit in terms of time and expertise; I do question how sustainable this is, yet with services stretched to breaking point I am among the people indebted.
One area I have been curious to discuss is the recent removal of the student cap; as of September 2015, Universities are no longer restricted by number of places. Anoushka admits, “right now it is too early to tell [what the impact will be], so we definitely need to keep an eye on how this unfolds as the year progresses.” Nonetheless, she seems reasonably assured that the impact won’t be too severe. “Services have always been stretched, so ensuring provision is a experienced issue.”
From our conversation, one underlying message is clear: students not only need time to talk, but a secure space from which others can hear. Whether through an online site or a physical place, Student Minds are seeking to provide this. Mental health, contrary to NHS lists, will not wait. Looking forward, we can only hope that those in power will finally listen; until then, it is our voices that must carry the call for change.