World Mental Health Day: It's time to start talking about students

NUS Wales women's officer Rhiannon Hedge believes it's time to start taking students' mental health much more seriously

Today is World Mental Health Day. It’s always seemed somewhat of an anomaly to me that we have only one day where mental health is “officially” recognised - just one.

We need to consider our mental health every day: acknowledge its importance, respect its strength and endeavour to give it the best care and attention that we afford our physical selves.

Figures released by National Union of Students in May this year found that almost all respondents (92 per cent) identified as having had feelings of mental distress, 20 per cent of students consider themselves to have a mental health problem, while 13 per cent have suicidal thoughts.

We need to recognise the role of education in mental health. The life change that a move to university brings is acknowledged as being one of the major shifts which can prompt mental health issues.

Or indeed show up underlying ones which were perhaps ignored or secondary when a student’s usual support network of family, friends and familiarity were close by.

If young people can recognise the symptoms of mental health problems then they can help themselves. It’s the unknown that makes it scary. It’s the thought that it’s only happening to you.

That you are weird, strange, malfunctioning, unable to cope. Mostly it’s that feeling that you are alone and nobody will understand, nobody can understand – even you yourself don’t fully understand.

I’ve suffered from abnormally high levels of anxiety as long as I can remember, and during my time at university my anxiety gradually increased and I began to develop depression.

I never sought any help for my mental illness until a short while after I’d graduated, when I reached a crisis point of having several uncontrollable, severe panic attacks a day and my depression took me to a very dark place.

I didn’t do well in my degree academically because I had no idea what was happening to me and I didn’t know how to get help, or that I could. I was dismissed as lazy by my department when my attendance suffered because walking into a crowded lecture room terrified me and every small task felt like a mountain to climb.

As I’d never really heard people talk about depression or anxiety disorders I didn’t know how to explain what was really going on. I know I’d have been able to succeed academically if the culture of my university had been different.

It fills me with optimism that a change seems to be occurring. On Tuesday I was proud to be part of the first NUS student mental health conference - "Student mental health - where next?" supported by Mind, and kindly hosted by Royal College of Nursing that saw students, university and college support services, and mental health agencies begin to address the issues that students face.

It’s time to put student mental health on the agenda. The more people talk about it the more it will be understood.

Each attendee to the conference made three commitments: to understand mental health in post-16 education; to change institutional attitudes to mental health for the better; to improve mental health service provision in post-16 education.

We also sent a postcard each to David Willets, minister for universities and science. There was no policy ask attached, no demands, just a simple message that the conversation is open, and we need him to join it.

Everybody needs to join. The importance of student mental health and the right to campus care provision needs to be recognised across the board – chancellors, councillors, ministers, media, parents, friends, family, you.

Rhiannon Hedge is the NUS Wales womens’ officer. Follow her on Twitter here. To find out more start talking to NUS now: mentalhealth@nus.org.uk

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