Can Students Change the Way Our Generation Thinks About Mental Health?

14/02/2013 11:31 | Updated 14 April 2013
  • Nicola Byrom Oxford University, Studying for a PhD in Experimental Psychology

I am a PhD student at Oxford University and I've been volunteering in the area of student mental health for over six years. There are thousands of student volunteers across the country. They all have different motivations. Some students volunteer because they want to do something positive with their spare time, others volunteer because they want to help people. I volunteer because I want to change the world I live in.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Nottingham I was not amazed by the number of students experiencing mental health problems - studies suggest that on average 1 in 4 students experience worrying levels of mental distress. I was shocked by how little students talked about mental health. I volunteered with Nightline and it was fantastic to see so many students so keen to reach out and help their peers. This experience volunteering however also gave me an insight into the limits of peer to peer support for mental health. Working with the Student Union Welfare Office, I felt that there was a general sense that a student's responsibility in terms of supporting peers with mental health problems was to signpost them on to professionals. I don't deny that many mental health problems need professional support and we could probably all benefit from a course of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, but, unlike physical illness, it is the talking that facilitates recovery from mental illness. We don't have to be professionals to support peers with mental health problems. We need patience, determination to understand and the confidence to listen.

It is not simply that peer to peer support is an option. It is an absolute necessity. If we want to improve our nation's mental health, we have to get better at talking about mental health. We all need to be more open about mental health. Mental illness is transient; with support, people recover. Encourage everyone to learn skills to be supportive and I'm confident that we'll see a revolution in mental health. At the moment student service managers, counsellors and mental health advisors are reporting increasing demand on their service. There are concerns that due to problems accessing specialist services, University Counselling services are under pressure to provide students with support that would normally be expected to be provided by the NHS [Leach & Hall, 2011]. NHS provision for mental health is limited and services are not usually adapted to the timescale of student life [Royal College of Psychiatrists]. Though the strain of services is already being felt, studies from the USA and Australia suggest that less than 25% of students experiencing psychological distress receive counselling and a recent report published by NUS Scotland revealed that less than 20% of students would consider approaching university counselling services when they suffered from stress. It seems that the traditional 1 - 2 - 1 therapeutic relationship with a professional is unlikely to have the capacity to increase the mental wellbeing of the British student population. Perhaps it is time that we started thinking creatively about how we support students with mental health problems; is one option facilitating peer support?

As an undergraduate at Nottingham University I launched a support group for students with Eating Disorders. As far as I know this was the first entirely student led project to run a support group for eating disorders. It was a very steep learning curve. I knew that if I wanted my work to have a wider impact than one university, I had to distil everything I had learnt and start to provide the training and resources that other students needed to run support groups. If we want to change the world around us, I'd argue that it isn't just important to get stuck in and act, if we want our actions to have long term impact, we have to build and share knowledge.
When I moved to Oxford University to start my PhD, I met Sara Fernandez, from Student Hubs, who encouraged me to think big. Over the last three and a half years I've set up SRSH, a charity to support a national network of support groups. The charity now runs Eating Disorders groups in 18 universities across the country. We currently have around 150 volunteers (students and recent graduates) actively involved in the project. We are just starting to develop support groups for students with depression.

There have been many uphill battles to fight in developing this charity, but the truly rewarding aspect of the project has been student enthusiasm to get involved. Students know first-hand what impact mental health problems have, not only on the sufferer but on all of their friends. It has been phenomenal to work with so many students, passionate about supporting peers and changing the way their community thinks about mental health. We all need to be more confident talking about mental health, and in my experience, encouraging student volunteers to develop skills to support peers, lies at the cornerstone of changing our generation's attitude to mental health.