Stress and the student: can we do more?


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Author: Jacqueline Baxter

It’s #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek and despite much good work done by schools, charities and professionals the picture on mental health still looks bleak. According to statistics produced by The Centre for Mental Health, one of the UK’s leading organisations for research into mental health, at any one time one worker in six will be experiencing depression, anxiety or problems relating to stress while a staggering 91 million days are lost each year due to mental health problems. The UK’s rates of self-harm in the UK are highest in Europe at 400 per 100,000 people.

The total cost to employers is high too, estimated at nearly £26 billion each year. That’s equivalent to £1,035 for every employee in the UK workforce.

Higher education does not emerge unscathed where mental health issues are concerned: A report by the National Union of Students in 2016 (NUS) highlighted the issues, stating that eight out of 10 students (78%) say they experienced mental health issues in the previous year. A third of the respondents stated they had suicidal thoughts. One of the most worrying facets of the study was the fact that more than half of those declaring they had experienced mental health problems, also stated that they did not seek help.

In an interview with Miriam Chappell, UMHAN Development and Operations Manager, she explained why student mental health is on the decline:

“Students face new challenges to their mental health - for example, increased cost of living, higher tuition fees and the prospect of graduating with debt, and the expansion of HE meaning increased competition for graduate jobs. In 2014 Student Minds' Grand Challenges report identified key challenges for student mental health as including concerns about the job market, high student fees, and academic pressure. In 2015 HEFCE found that student support services had seen an increase in appointments by 150%.”[1]

On a more positive note, universities have recognised the problem, as illustrated by the incredible response to University Mental Health Day. According to the Charity Student Minds, an education and support for service for university students in the area of mental health, this year, an estimated 7800 people took part in campaign events, with a staggering 81 universities running events on the day. Online, 5603 individuals used the hashtag #UniMentalHealthDay on Twitter, reaching an incredible 17,077,906 users and topping the trending list for the UK. In addition to this Miriam explained that, “-Student support services are working incredibly hard to reach students and the increase in appointments isn't just negative - these figures also show a new willingness to seek support and suggest the development of a culture where talking about mental health is becoming more mainstream.”

Stigma and Isolation a toxic combination.

Many of the issues around mental health are compounded by the sense of isolation suffered by those experiencing problems. This is largely due to persistently high levels of stigma around the whole issue of mental ill health in the UK - not just for students but for everyone. The media can be highly influential, and news reports with depersonalising terms such as; psycho or schizo are instrumental in creating and perpetuating high levels of stigma around mental health. The Charity Time to Change has long recognised this and offers a range of support services for those reporting in the media. Their advice to reporters is to avoid language such as, ‘psycho or schizo, lunatic, nutter', language that de humanises individuals, opting rather for language that stresses the centrality of the person that is going through a period of poor mental health.

Although the UK as a country is not unique in experiencing high levels of stigma, many other countries addressed the matter some time ago: In Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik was diagnosed with depression during his first term as prime minister. His honesty and willingness to speak openly about his illness led to an outpouring of support from across Norway. Speaking to Ben Jones, correspondent at the World Health Organisation (WHO), he explained what caused his depression:

During over 30 years in politics, stress was common in my life, but this time it was different. When I became prime minister I took on too much and hardly had a break. At the same time I was going through a time of loss and grief as three of my best friends had all died of brain cancer in the space of three years. I didn’t realize that grief, when it is not managed properly, depletes your strength. I was away from the office for three and half weeks, after what I call ‘walking and talking therapy’ in a cottage in the mountains.”

The response to his decision to go public about his illness was spectacular:

“I received about 1000 letters from people across Norway, saying they had similar problems and that when I was open about my diagnosis, it became easier for them to be open as well. Some of them said that, for the first time, they could talk to somebody else about their illness. They were thinking: 'If the prime minister can talk about his mental health problems, why can't we do it too?'

He believes very firmly that admitting his experiences of depression made him a stronger leader, but that it also taught him some important life lessons: “As prime minister, it taught me how to set limits on what I should be involved in and what people could ask of me. I became a better leader and a better prime minister [….] But most of all I learned about the importance of openness about mental illness.”

As a result of his openness about his condition, the Norwegian Government invested 24 billion Norwegian krone (US$ 4.3 billion) more on mental health care services, including on research into mental health, stating that they, “wanted a warmer and more humane society, where people care for their fellow human beings, care for the less fortunate among us and take responsibility for each other and for future generations.”

Back in the UK Teresa May has defended her statement that “As a government we are spending record levels in the NHS on mental health" (Teresa May, 261016). But the fact checking charity Full Fact’s freedom of information request to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in October 2016 indicated that whilst the government committed 11.7 billion spending on mental health for the period 2016-17,  57% of CCGs responding to the study indicated that they planned to reduce their spending (128 responded out of 211 CCGs).

The picture at school level is far from satisfactory: A survey by the National Union of Head teachers (NAHT) in collaboration with charity Place2B found that 57% of teachers that have tried to get help for pupils suffering mental health issues had been unsuccessful. 93% of those responding stated that students bring more worries to school than they did in 2012. Their report also indicated that one in five children will experience a mental health difficulty at least once during their first 11 years, and that two million children live in a household with a parent who has a mental illness.

Mental health and the terrible life destroying stigma associated with it is a time bomb for society, deterring those with problems from speaking out and seeking help. More attention needs to be paid not only to supporting those with mental health issues, but equally to breaking down the barriers of stigma that prevent so many children and adults from seeking help when they most need it.

Dr Jacqueline Baxter campaigns against stigma in mental health and is a member of a number of charities which further this cause. She is Co Editor in Chief of the Sage Publication Management in Education and is based in The Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise at The Open University Business School.  She tweets at @DrJacqueBaxter.

 Views or opinions expressed in BELMAS blog articles are solely those of the author and do not represent the views or expressions of BELMAS or BELMAS RIGS.
Next article: Motherhood, career and leadership: time to re-think the gender binary?

Jacqueline Baxter Interview with Miriam Chappell University Mental Health Advisers Network Development and Operations Worker.

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