Students are often described as either ‘generation snowflake’ or ‘vulnerable young people in crisis’, neither of which helps students experiencing difficulties themselves. Here, guest blogger Sian Duffin reflects on the importance of talking about mental health and offers advice on how university staff can support their students and how they can support each other

Mental Health is a common topic on today’s news agenda, but perhaps one that’s not addressed enough when it comes to students. University Mental Health Day is held on the first Thursday in March and each year and is an important annual day for higher education institutions to band together and make student mental health a priority.

Arden University Student Support Manager Sian Duffin

Having the important conversations

How many times this week have you said, ‘I’m fine’, or, ‘fine thanks’ to someone when they have asked? Did you mean it? Or was finding the words to say, ‘Things are challenging for me right now’ or ‘I feel really worried about x’, simply too difficult?

We have so many conversations every day, but how many of them have the potential to save someone’s life?

So often, having the crucial conversation that say: ‘I’m struggling’ or asking if someone is okay and being genuinely interested in their answer still feels rare. What if we changed the conversation? What if we asked, ‘how are you” and we weren’t allowed to answer, ‘fine’?

It’s easier said than done, though, to make these changes and I think there are a number of barriers that could potentially be in the way, for staff or fellow students offering support.”

Time always a factor

Time is always a factor, there is never enough for a proper conversation, but having the conversation doesn’t have to be immediate. If someone says they would like to talk, arrange for a good time for both of you.

The crucial thing is to keep the appointment when there is time. Create a safe space to have the conversation, where you can be relaxed and comfortable.

International students or those studying via distance learning can sometimes feel isolated and not want to reach out. Support teams working with these students are skilled in building relationships online and offer a variety of methods to give time, including by phone, Skype and Adobe Connect platforms. We are good at looking for emotions and feelings but also patterns of disengagement, which may suggest a student is struggling. We reach out and ask about how a student might like to talk to us and when.

Fear of saying the wrong thing

You don’t have to have the answers or worry about saying the wrong thing. You won’t make anything worse for someone if your words don’t come out quite right. Gentle encouragement to talk, asking about how something is making them feel, even just sitting in a short silence while they gather their thoughts are all helpful things to do.

If they are really struggling to talk, ask if they could write it down, sometimes, that can help people organise their thoughts and express themselves more clearly.

There are sometimes cultural differences that we take into account, particularly around mental health. Being sensitive to these and using neutral language can be important, and we never attempt to label students as ‘depressed’ or ‘anxious’, we would use words like, ‘finding things challenging’ or ‘making you feel a bit more upset than is usual for you’ which we find international students respond better to.

Not being able to find a quick fix

You’re not expected to be able to fix the problem immediately. Don’t worry about being the expert, simply being able to listen to someone talk about what is going on and how it’s affecting them can often help that person think about what needs to change. Simple sources of support for a friend can be their GP and/or Samaritans but why not offer to sit with them while they made the appointment, or to be with them while they make a call?

Use university student support teams for advice. At Arden, all of our students have access to a 24/7 helpline for confidential and emotional support and we can help signpost those in need to other organisations.

This includes Distance Learners. We have a bank of international organisations that we can signpost to and we also know some organisations in the UK that work internationally.

Start by supporting yourself

If you have had an in-depth, high-emotion conversation, it can leave you feeling tired and vulnerable yourself. Talk to someone confidentially if you are still concerned about the student, so that you can get support with how to handle any future conversations.

Take time to decompress, relax and switch off. Explore some mindfulness techniques to focus on yourself for a while. Congratulate yourself on going beyond the surface to hear someone’s voice. It is often the first vital step that helps someone make a positive change.

See more at about University Mental Health Day here
  • This blog was revised slightly on 10 February 2020.