[Mohammed Afkhami | Contributing Writer]
This year’s mental health awareness week is taking place from 11th to 17th of May, but an increasing openness to talk about a previously hidden away part of the human condition is becoming obvious. You will be even more aware of this if you’ve liked Mind, the Stephen Fry-led NGO that exists to help those with mental health problems and hopefully destigmatise the experience in the process.
The argument put forward by these movements is that for too long, we’ve sequestered from society and ourselves the existence of mental illness, stigmatised it or straight up denied it, and now is the time to stop.
As part of my research into the University’s performance in this area, I had been collecting views from sufferers and those campaigners who are part of the University’s counselling and wellbeing outreach programme.
First I caught up with Robert, a student who had experienced mental health issues as a young adult and now helps promote and improve the NHS’ Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
As a currently proactive campaigner for mental health issues and someone who well and truly has overcome their past problems, Robert delved into his experiences with me.
Speaking on the phone I asked him a little bit in regards to his background:
“When my problems started I didn’t initially realise that such a thing as anxiety disorders existed. It all started in secondary school, and it wasn’t until halfway through secondary school that I fully recognised I had problems,”
Robert said. “It all made me avoid school as much as possible. Sometimes I would get ill just due to anxiety. Some classes like history were out of bounds all together. I had to leave secondary school and had to be home-schooled for a year. Once I did my GCSE’s I got better and then went to sixth form and eventually went to Uni.”
Robert revealed that he was at his worst in 2010, but received therapy from CAMHS, which is a free NHS service for people between the ages of 5 to 18 who experience issues during their school years. You can access a doctor, get a referral and then receive various kinds of treatments, he said.
I then brought up mindfulness meditation which is an NHS provided therapy that has been making headway in pain management and controlling anxiety. The counselling and wellbeing centre also offers sessions in it.
“I’ve heard of it in the NHS but haven’t used it,” said Robert. “I’m only mildly aware of the existence of mental health services at the uni, let alone individual services like mindfulness.”
How would you rate the visibility of mental health services in the University and how could it be improved?
“They should put more leaflets into the Students’ Union, in private areas so that it looks less conspicuous, so that someone reading such material feels less self-conscious,” said Robert. “It could be advertised more on StudyNet and possibly brought up in lectures.”
Robert also feels that there should be mental health awareness events, allowing students who are struggling to collect the contact details. This would help to destigmatise mental health and allow people to reach out afterwards.
I then caught up with Carly Benton, Assistant Student Activities Manager at Hertfordshire Students’ Union, who was involved in events for Time to Talk Day which exposed students to external charities like Mind. Carly said:
“This academic year we had a brand new student-led project called ‘THINK’. The project works alongside mental health charities and organisations to promote good mental health and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. The group have run various campaigns and events throughout the year including comedy nights to promote ‘Laughter is the best medicine,’ quiz nights to raise money for Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, awareness events about eating disorders and PTSD months where they invited speakers from local organisations in to talk about PTSD and mental health. They had a big photo board which they used at every event.”
Why do you see this as important?
“The feedback the project has received has been great,” said Carly. “Students have said that they have learnt a lot more about mental health and related topics, which they didn’t before, and the proactive approach the group has taken to increase awareness of mental health on campus. They also said it has made them feel more comfortable talking about mental health and it’s very positive to have a group of students on campus leading such an important project. This feedback demonstrates the need to continue to increase awareness and spread the message about mental health in a creative way to engage as many students as possible.”
While there is an importance of increasing awareness, some students still question the counselling and wellbeing services offered by the university, as opposed to those provided through the NHS.
“One of the big differences between the university services and those offered by the NHS is the level of understanding,” she said. “When you meet with students every day and you’re familiar with the demands of university life and how this can affect someone’s mental health, you’re in a much better position to support that person.”
Kealie added: “I believe that it’s important for students to be made aware of the services that are available here on campus. For many people they can be invaluable and can make a big difference in them successfully reaching the end of their degree. It’s important that there is constant promotion of the services, and that students know where to turn if they need it.”
If you are experiencing difficulties with mental health, you can contact your GP or visit the Counselling Centre located within the Hutton Hub on College Lane.