With one in four adults and one in ten children experiencing mental illness (NHS, 2020), it’s highly likely that you know someone who has experienced mental health difficulties. Yet despite mental health being such a prominent part of many people’s daily lives, awareness and understanding is still surprisingly low.
Even university students are subject to mental health difficulties, with almost nine in 10 (87.7%) of 37,500 polled admitting that they struggled with feelings of anxiety. (The Guardian, 2019)
In light of such findings, it’s no wonder that many universities are keen to promote University Mental Health Day on 7 March. Ahead of the university-wide awareness day, we caught up with Emma Lockwood, counselling and mental health officer at University Centre Leeds.
On a mission to make a difference
Emma always knew that she wanted a career where she could support other people but wasn’t sure on her interests until studying psychology at college. She then studied psychology with counselling at university, before completing a postgraduate diploma and master’s degree in counselling and psychotherapy.
“Throughout the training to become a counsellor, I began to realise there were times in life where I would have benefitted from that additional support. It feels really valuable to be able to provide that support to people now,” says Emma.
Emma has worked as a counsellor in many organisations including colleges and charities. She has also worked in different student-facing roles which she believes has allowed her to gain a deeper understanding of the typical challenges that students may face.
“Alongside counselling, I have also worked in education as a student support assistant where I provided in-class and out-of-class support to students with learning difficulties. My most recent role before I joined University Centre Leeds, was working as a progress tutor in a college while also running the college’s mentor programme.
“I have found it really beneficial to work in different roles in education as it means I have more understanding about the difficulties students can face,” Emma explains.
Challenges to the conversation
Though mental health difficulties are increasingly common in today’s society, there is still a stigma surrounding it. What’s more, Emma has also found that people often deal with self-stigma.
“As well as stigma in society about mental health, I think people can also deal with self-stigma, where they worry about speaking about their problems in case they are judged or misunderstood. I think it is important to continue to raise awareness about mental health through campaigns and fundraisers such as University Mental Health Day, while reminding students of support available.
“The more a person speaks out and receives a positive, understanding reaction from someone, the easier it becomes for them to share. It can be as simple as spreading the message that it is okay to talk,” she says.
Though it’s not possible to identify if mental health stigma is better or worse in universities, Emma has found that the conversation around mental health is improving and that staff are pushing initiatives to support mental health.
“In my experience, the conversation about mental health in HE is continuing to grow in a positive way, staff are working together to ensure they have the relevant support in place and are communicating with other institutions to see what is working for them. Campaigns such as University Mental Health Day also help by providing knowledge of mental health difficulties, which can play a large role in reducing stigma,” explains Emma.
Though the conversation about mental health is heading in a positive direction, it’s important for universities not to become complacent, as poor mental health can have a significant impact on students and their studies.
“Students can feel alienated, especially if they feel they are the only person struggling, which means it is less likely they will reach out to a staff member for help, causing the workload and stress to get on top of them.
“Students dealing with anxiety can also worry about things such as submitting work, speaking to staff about deadlines and even turning up to university at all. Having understanding from staff members can make students feel more comfortable about reaching out for support for their studies,” Emma says.
Helping students mind their minds
University Centre Leeds offers a range of mental health support for its students.
“Students can refer themselves for an assessment through the online referral form to discuss the support available and identify what might help them. They can also ask for assistance with this process from a tutor. There is also counselling and mentoring available to students who are struggling as well as information about external support,” says Emma.
“University Centre Leeds also has a welfare and student engagement officer who works with students in a number of ways, such as helping with financial issues. Our officer also runs focus groups for students to share their views as well as societies for students to meet others with shared interests. There are also regular campaigns and fundraising events to encourage students to talk about their mental health,” she adds.
Though University Centre Leeds already has a solid foundation of support available, Emma is keen to ensure they continue to introduce new initiatives that will benefit students.
“It’s important that students are aware of internal and external support. There is lots of information for students to see around the campus but I am also helping to update an app so students can have information sent straight to their phones. The idea of introducing different societies to the university will also help students realise they are not alone,” she says.
“University can bring a lot of stress and pressure with it, so it’s important that University Centre Leeds is a place where students feel supported. This University Mental Health Day, we are setting up a board where students can write something. It can be a pledge to talk about mental health more, a positive message for someone who is struggling or a way to share their experiences,” Emma adds.
So what advice would Emma give to University Centre Leeds students who are already struggling with their mental health?
“If someone has been struggling for a while, I would recommend seeing their GP so their doctor’s surgery is aware of their difficulties and can provide information about local support. I think people can be surprised at how much just an hour of talking can help, it doesn’t have to be a professional, just someone you feel comfortable with can make a difference.
“If talking feels too much right now, there are other ways you can work through those feelings, such as writing in a journal or exercising. For stress awareness month in April, we will be sharing 30 ways to reduce stress which will hopefully provide useful for anyone struggling,” Emma says.
If you’re a University Centre Leeds student looking for mental health support email email@example.com to book your consultation.
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