University Mental Health day is on Thursday 3 March 2022! Lucy Twilley, UCASU's Advice & Wellbeing Coordinator is here to outline what challenging mental health can look like, and how to support yourself or others in need.
It's University Mental Health Day!
It's Lucy Twilley here, Advice & Wellbeing Coordinator at UCASU. I'm here to let you know that this year, University Mental Health day is on Thursday 3 March! We wanted to take this opportunity to raise awareness around mental health, we understand that university can be challenging and also that it can impact your mental health. In this blog post, I will outline some of the signs to look out for, along with tips to maintain good mental health and how to look out for your friends.
A survey by the Office for National Statistics found that in 2021, 37% of first-year students suffered from symptoms of depression and 37% had symptoms of anxiety. This is a sad reality and one I’m sure does resonate with many of you reading this. There are a huge number of factors that can play a part in our mental health, whether this is stress (which may be due to your studies), relationships, identity struggles or financial hardships – all of these factors can negatively impact our mental health as a whole, and leave us with new and challenging feelings which you may have not experienced before.
Have you been keeping up with your friends and family?
A common early sign that you could be experiencing depression or anxiety is the urge to distance yourself from others. This might mean ignoring phone calls or texts, cancelling plans or not wanting to spend time with loved ones. You might feel a lack of motivation or a low social battery that keeps you from wanting to be around people, or you might feel the need to hide your feelings and the easiest way to do this is to avoid human interaction altogether. Maybe you feel like others won’t understand you, embarrassment, anxiety or even shame – you aren't alone in feeling this way, and whatever your reason, it has been proven that isolating yourself can worsen the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
If this resonates with you, although it can feel easier said than done, if you don’t want to reach out to your family or friends, you could contact a mental health centre or telephone service such as Samaritans on 116 123 or by email at email@example.com (visit the website by clicking here). We have outlined in our Mental Health & Disability Resouce the local and national services in your area, and you can access this by clicking right here.
You could also download the Hub of Hope app which will tell you all of the local mental health services in your area. It might feel less daunting for you to speak to an impartial service than it would to a friend or family member. That said, if you do have a trusted friend or family member with who you feel comfortable sharing your feelings, we want to assure you that it is highly unlikely that you will be judged or shamed in any way – even if it feels like you might be right now, the people in your life love you and will want to support you how best they can.
Has a friend of yours been isolating themselves? Not sure how to support or help?
Conversations about mental health can seem daunting on the surface, it's normal to feel this way. Not everyone is used to or able to have deep emotional conversations, and knowing the right thing to say can be difficult. Most of the time, the person you want to support just needs someone to listen, not necessarily to talk. We have outlined some tips below of useful conversation starters. and this may be surprising, but it doesn’t always need to be deep and heartfelt!
"I’ve noticed you’re not around much recently, are you okay?"
"We all really missed you at X event, it's not the same without you! Is everything okay?"
"You haven’t seemed yourself recently, just wanted to check how you're doing?"
"I know we don’t usually talk like this, but I just wanted to check in to see how you are?
Are you struggling with sleep, eating or personal hygiene?
If you have fallen out of your usual sleeping, eating or showering habits, this can be an early sign that your mental health might be declining. You may be struggling to follow your usual sleeping pattern and this can look like sleeping more than you usually would, or not being able to sleep to the degree that you can function well. Insomnia is not a mental illness in itself, but it is a symptom of mental illness and one that can cause more issues. Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, hard to stay asleep or cause you to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep. You might feel like your mind is going at a million miles per hour and it is hard to switch off, or on the other side of the spectrum, you might just want to be asleep as often as possible due to a lack of motivation and a desire to avoid everything.
If you have no appetite or aren't eating as much as you usually would, this can also be a sign that you are struggling with your mental health. This can look like skipping meals, only eating one meal a day, or even not eating altogether. Disordered eating habits can be related to eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia & binge eating) and this could also be a symptom of depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses. What it is a symptom of is completely personal in each case, so if you do have a history of eating disorders, this might be a sign of relapse for you. You will find support specifically for eating disorders in our Mental Health & Disability Resource which can be accessed by clicking here.
Another sign of declining mental health is forgetting to or having no motivation to shower/bath, brush your hair or teeth, or do other personal acts of hygiene and self-care. There is absolutely no shame in this, you may feel a lack of motivation to do these things or feel that it isn’t important as you won’t be seeing anyone (thinking about the isolation I've mentioned above). It might just not be on your radar or feel like a priority, so you just don’t do it. It might even be self-esteem related and you don’t feel as if you matter enough to remember these tasks. Whatever your reason, you are not alone in feeling like this and seeking support with your mental health will help you to challenge these feelings.
Have you felt overwhelmed or lost interest in daily tasks?
Another sign of poor mental health is that you might feel less motivated to do things you usually enjoy, or you might feel overwhelmed at the thought of doing smaller daily tasks. Maybe you feel distracted by what is going on in your head or in your life, or maybe you struggle to find the energy and motivation to do things that usually you would enjoy or do with ease – this is very common and it is totally okay.
The best thing to do in this circumstance is to allow yourself some time to rest. Remember that mental health is just as important as physical health, and in the same way that you might take a sick day for physical illness, you can also take time off for your mental health. If you are working or studying, take regular breaks, and if you feel overwhelmed, allow yourself the time to breathe and relax. Try not to push yourself when you aren’t feeling up for things, as this may actually make things worse, even if you feel like it will help. Taking time to relax is essential for maintaining a healthy mind and looking after your mental health.
Why should you reach out for help?
When it comes to mental health and wellbeing, a really important consideration is to take care of your mental health before you reach your lowest point. When it comes to social isolation, Jimanekia Eborn, a Queer Media Consultant and Trauma Expert suggested the idea of having some designated people in your life who you can use a code word to communicate that you aren’t in a good place. For example, if you text them the word ‘blue’, this means you need support. In response, can they send you a quote that might help, your favourite song, order you food, remind you to shower, remind you to go outside, facetime you, call you, or whatever it is you need at that moment. By using code words, you can remove the need to describe or explain your feelings which might just be the really daunting part for you (as it is for many people) and using a simple word to communicate might make it easier for you to seek support in a dark time. It is a good idea to organise this system and ask the people you'd like to include if they are able to support you in this way before your mental health gets harder to handle so that they can be ready and equipped to support you if your mental health becomes more challenging.
On the flip side, if you are acting as someone’s designated person, you need to remember that responsibility does not fall on you. Although you can remind others to do daily self-care tasks and get outside and there is no doubt that these are thoughtful and helpful things you can do to support those you care about, it's likely that this is not going to be the 'fix'. If you are having a conversation about mental health, and you are not a mental health expert, it is not your responsibility to act in this way or to alleviate someone else's mental illness for the sake of your own mental health.
In the same way that not everyone has qualified to be a doctor for physical illness, they cannot be a doctor for mental illness alike. You can help, support, chat, and encourage the person you are supporting to engage with experts and professionals who can help on a longer-term basis. A good app to use is Hub of Hope, which uses your location to find all of the mental health support services in your area. You can use this for yourself, or to find useful support for a friend. Whatever might be going on for you or for a friend, people are here to provide support, guidance and help.
My mental health is affecting my studies, what can I do?
If for any reason your mental health has meant that you aren’t able to submit an assignment on time, you could be eligible to request mitigating circumstances from your Campus Registry. Mitigating Circumstances grants you an extension on your deadline of varying lengths based on your personal situation, typically, this is up to three weeks. You will need to detail what is going on for you and how your studies have been impacted, in many cases it will support your request if you can provide evidence i.e. a doctor's note. Examples of reasons that you can submit to request mitigating circumstances are physical/mental health challenges, bereavement or hardship in your personal life.
Your mental wellbeing is a huge priority to us at UCASU, you are not alone and we are always here to help.
I'd like to end this by reminding you that your Students Union (us here at UCASU) exist to support you throughout your studies. So, whether you are unsure how to seek help for your mental health within the university (or beyond!), if aren't sure if you have a case for mitigating circumstances, or you need someone to support and guide you to do or access things that will support your mental health, UCASU are here to help.
We also provide an independent advice and wellbeing service separate from the university which is what I do (yes, me, Lucy!) here at UCASU, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.