University isn’t always ‘the best days of our lives’. In fact, it can be a really tough time for many students – even before throwing a global pandemic into the mix.
“It’s important to recognise we were dealing with a mental health crisis before the pandemic, and this has absolutely exacerbated it,” says Lauren McConkey, Mental Health Foundation’s project manager for higher education.
The Insight Network and student organisation Dig-In’s 2018 University Student Mental Health Survey found one in five students had a current mental health diagnosis, and things like anxiety, isolation, thoughts of self-harm and substance misuse were high across the board.
More recently, a report by YoungMinds last summer (the charity surveyed 2,036 13-25-year-olds with a history of mental health problems) found 80% felt the pandemic had made their mental health worse.
So, if you’re a parent, carer, university lecturer or friend, how can you help support students’ mental health?
1. Be aware that student life can be tough
Being supportive starts with awareness. It can be easy for older adults to think young people can’t possibly have any ‘real problems’, but this simply isn’t accurate or helpful. “University can be hugely challenging. It’s such a huge time for students, often moving away from home and the support network and everything you know,” says McConkey.
For people with mental health issues, this can be a particularly vulnerable time, and while students may be surrounded by thousands of people, it can still feel extremely isolating as they find their feet. This can be especially true for those from BAME backgrounds, living with disability or health issues, and LGBTQ+ students.
2. Be sympathetic to the uncertainty students are dealing with
The pandemic has brought a shed-load of uncertainty for of us. For students, with the addition worries about where they’ll be living, future job prospects and mounting debt, there are extra layers to this. “Uncertainty can have a big impact on our mental health, as humans we crave certainty, it’s what makes us feel safe and secure,” says McConkey. “The pandemic has been a sustained period of uncertainty, so it’s not surprising [students] are finding that difficult.”
3. Be someone who listens
If they open up or mention they’re having a hard time, don’t underestimate the power of just listening. You don’t need to have all the answers – just don’t downplay or dismiss their experiences, even if you think you’re trying to help. “It’s about not diminishing people’s experiences,” says McConkey. “One of the most important things at any age, if you’re experiencing a mental health problem, is to feel heard and understood.”
4. Do some reading
It could be useful, McConkey suggests, to do some reading around student mental health. You’ll find tons of resources on the Mental Health Foundation website, as well as Student Space and Student Minds Mind has also launched a Student Mental Health Hub and The Mix is a great support resource for under-25s. This means you’ll be more clued up about services out there, and things students can do to support their own wellbeing – like getting plenty of sleep, eating well and keeping active.
4. Signpost and share
You can remind students about these resources too, or flag them up if they tell you they’re having a hard time. Everybody can benefit from knowing support is out there. Thankfully, we’re starting to move away from the stigma around mental health – but it can still be really hard to talk about. Reminding students they can talk to their GP, and access other services or helplines, such as Samaritans or The Mix, can help normalise these conversations.
5. Be mindful of warning signs
Lots of people hide their mental health struggles, so McConkey says it’s “really important to look out for changes in behaviour. Withdrawal is one of the biggest symptoms to be aware of, because often in quieter students it can go unnoticed, and then they’ll be suffering in silence a bit more. Seeing signs like anger and frustration, we should definitely be aware of those too, but they’re almost a bit healthier because the person is expressing how they’re feeling and we’re able to respond. Withdrawal can be a bit dangerous because so often it will go unnoticed.”
6. Try not to be another source of pressure
“The academic pressure at university can really take a toll, so it is also about not adding to that pressure, letting your young person know they are safe and supported however they get on,” says McConkey. Again, this is especially important right now – times are tough and mental health is way more important than grades. Remind them of this, let them know you’re always proud, and go easy if they’re anxious about how well they’re doing.
7. Be caring but not pushy
This extends to everything else too, including keeping in contact. “It’s about regular check-ins, but also making sure you are not another source of pressure in this incredibly uncertain world.”
8. Send a care package
A cookbook, their favourite snacks, or just a fun postcard – it doesn’t have to cost much – receiving some thoughtful post can be a great boost and really bolster that sense of care and connection.
9. Share a gratitude practice
“Something that’s really lovely and good for our mental health, especially at times like this, is practicing gratitude,” says McConkey, who says this could be something parents do when checking in with students. “Maybe thinking of three things you might be grateful for. So you might have had a really bad day, but the sun was out, you got out for a walk – looking at the positive things in our lives can have a big impact on the way we see the world.”