Earlier this month, TimetoTalk held their first ever time to talk day, to encourage us to talk about mental health, by doing simple things, like asking people how they are when you meet them. Since university mental health awareness week (with a focal day on 19th February) ends today, and bearing in mind my experience with students, I feel the time is ripe to do as the organizations have been urging, and help raise awareness of student mental health. Here goes…
I’ll frame it around the lecture I’m giving this evening. Part of the lecture is about the power of descriptive group norms to guide behaviour. This has been shown powerfully in studies by Dr. Andrew Livingstone, now at the University of Exeter. His research focused on students, and showed that participants with a positive attitude to heavy drinking and who identified strongly with the ingroup reported stronger intentions to drink heavily even when the ingroup had a moderate, drinking norm, indicating resistance to the normative information, and an insistence on carrying on drinking. But – low identifiers would only promote heavy drinking when the group norm was also said to be for heavy drinking: when they were likely to have strong social support for drinking.
What on earth has that got to do with student mental health? Well, let’s think about students who privately hold a good attitude to mental health, and mental health services, even if they know that there might be some stigma attached to them. The above research might be used to argue that if these students believed that there was a student group norm for experiencing mental distress, and towards using mental health services when needed, regardless of how far they identify as students, they would tend towards accepting this norm, and acting in accordance with it.
The statistics support that lots of students do experience mental distress, and that there is a positive student group norm towards mental health services. In a recent NUS study 47% of students said that they would recommend university support services to a student in need. Stress and lack of motivation were experienced by 80% and 70% of the sample respectively, and more and more students are making use of counselling services, year-on-year. In fact, a fifth of students surveyed had been diagnosed with a mental health problem. And 74% of students in distress managed to tell someone about their problems.
This research shows that mental health problems are common at university. It also shows, that even if it might seem uncomfortable, it’s normative to talk, if you get distressed. It’s OK to talk, too, and the services are available. To add anecdote to evidence, most of the students, who in the years I’ve been teaching, have just popped in through my open-door without appointment, have done so with a mental health related concern. It’s normal.
So, how are you? If you need help, talk to someone. Call a friend, make that counselling appointment, or call Nightline, or the Samaritans. Help is there. And if you’re a nearby student, I have tea, and biscuits in my office, and it wouldn’t be good for me to eat them all myself….