University mental health day is an opportunity to reflect on factors relating to well-being of students and staff at the university. Much as university is a place for academic development, it is also important that we continue to look after our well-being. University can bring many challenges, including pressures of learning to study and work in a new way, meeting deadlines, living independently and balancing work, social and personally restorative activities. perhaps it's not surprising that the number of people at university reporting mental health problems is higher than ever. So how can we help ourselves and each other?
Back to Basics
The foundation of good mental and physical health is how we look after ourselves. Good nutrition, exercise and sleep habits are key to health so checking in with these and making changes if necessary is often the first point of call when things don't feel right. You may also be aware of other things that help you to keep a healthy balance in your life such as spending time with friends or ways of relaxing that are important to maintain especially when life is particularly challenging.
Beyond basic self care it can be important to understand a bit more about the human mind so that we know what to do if things start to fall apart. The psychologist Paul Gilbert explains that human minds evolved to survive, not to thrive. The workings of the human mind have been shaped by evolution over thousands of years when living conditions were very different from those we encounter today. As a result we have a tendency to react to stress and related difficulties in characteristic ways that would be appropriate for threats to survival but do not translate well to the challenges of modern life.
For example we are automatically predisposed to focus on threats (ie anything that causes us stress) and withdraw from normal activities and relationships until they are resolved. Similarly we may withdraw from other people or feel distant from them. if we don't recognise that these are automatic responses to stress we may question what is wrong with us and feel even worse. Often people feel ashamed and hide their feelings, which means that it can be hard to see that this is a normal process that everybody experiences. We pretend that everything is OK or withdraw from company when this is too much of an effort. This can start a cycle of feelings, thoughts and responses that can lead to mental health problems unless we recognise what is happening and take steps to respond differently.
The key is to recognise that the experience of unpleasant feelings such as being anxious, overwhelmed, sad, scared or lonely is normal but is also likely to trigger automatic defensive strategies which are no longer appropriate for the world we live in. Therefore we need to recognise when we are reacting with these strategies and try to make a different choice. So if you can't stop thinking about your work, it might be time to step away from it and go for a walk. If you are feeling more distant from your friends, remember this is likely to be an automatic response to stress rather than a reflection of the truth and take steps to reconnect with them if you can. Nearly everybody feels like this at times. Sometimes it can be hard to see what's happening when you are going through it so it's important to look out for your friends too and talk to them if they don't seem like themselves.
If the steps above don't help it might be time to reach out for more support. Personal tutors provide an initial point of contact for pastoral care or the university chaplaincy service are also available for an informal listening ear. Alternatively students can self-refer for counselling with student wellbeing. Alternative services to support mental health are available through GP practices, including the improving access to psychological therapies service which can also be accessed through self-referral as long as you are registered with a local GP. Remember that many students and staff at the university have experienced mental health difficulties at one time or another and have been helped by talking things through, either informally or with professional help. With the increased pressures of modern living it is crucial that we recognise that needing such help is not a weakness. It is the result of normal response patterns to challenging circumstances which, sometimes, we need some help to change and reverse.