Yesterday was University Mental Health Day, a time to draw attention to both the common and unique challenges faced by students which can impact negatively on their mental health.
Students face some unique stressors, often experiencing a period of transition in their living arrangements and social environment. Along with this, they have the pressure of balancing study with work and the need for income. Obviously, students also face many of the same common challenges with mental health as the rest of us. University Mental Health Day exists not because student mental health is more important than others’ but rather as a reminder that students are human beings who experience mental health challenges just like the rest of society. The experience of all human beings is important, and something we should always strive to improve.
Through our endeavours to highlight worthy causes we have become somewhat saturated with awareness calendar events. Competing for importance with University Mental Health Day this month we have Brain Tumour Awareness Month, Deep-Vein Thrombosis Awareness Month and Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. In fact, this very week we also have Self-Harm Awareness Day, Eating Disorders Week and Endometriosis Awareness Week. There is perhaps the potential for the impact of these well-meaning awareness events to be diluted by the sheer volume of them, as people’s attention is pulled in different directions depending on their personal circumstances or sense of purpose. For anyone feeling exhausted trying to keep up with all this awareness raising it might be useful to highlight that it is also National Bed Month and British Pie Week… make of that what you will.
Awareness raising is great but once your awareness is raised, what then? Imagine you become aware of a rip in your wallpaper and you make a mental note to repair it. It slips from your mind and you don’t think about it until the next time you see it. You tell yourself again that you should repair it and the cycle repeats. Of course, many mental health issues are far more distressing than some ripped wallpaper and therefore should be harder to ignore. Unfortunately, aside from the few causes that hold personal significance for us, we often allow ourselves to forget or ignore others outwith their scheduled awareness days.
One of the primary purposes of an awareness day is to eventually eliminate the need to mark that day through raising public awareness to such a level that the condition or experience does not slip from our consciousness for the rest of the year. The way we engage with these days though can lead to a vicious circle where we mark an awareness day then, feeling contented that we’ve done our bit, allow ourselves to rest easy until the awareness day rolls around again. While having a day to highlight student mental health is important, it must maintain its importance beyond a 24-hour period. In the same way that the well-intended “one in four people will experience mental ill health” statistic can imply three in four of us will be fine, any set day for noting or marking mental health may allow it to be forgotten the rest of the time.
In order to move away from the need to continually raise awareness around mental health we need to try to create supportive and understanding cultures both within organisations and in society in general. Within universities we can try to set an example by setting and working to lofty ambitions around changing cultures where we try to understand and support the mental health and wellbeing of students and university staff. This needs a proactive “fishing upstream” approach where we try to support people before they fall into the river of mental distress, rather than trying to fish them out further downstream once they are broken and battered.
We should think of universities as institutions without walls, as the experiences students have in a short period of time shape their view of the world, and ripple into the general population. One of the most important skills we can offer is the ability to engage in open conversations about mental health and distress.
If we get this right for students we do a service to society. While it may seem counter-intuitive to say this (as the reason you are reading this is because of University Mental Health Day) tokenistic mental health days are not that important… unless they move us to a place where we appreciate that mental health is important always.
Scott Macpherson and Dan Warrender are both lecturers in mental health nursing at Robert Gordon University’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedic Practice.