Mental health and the Active Lives programme at the University of Edinburgh

Slimming-Exercise-Gym-Dumbbell-Kettlebells-1677217 cropMental health of students has been grabbing the headlines – usually in a negative way – for a few years now as demand for support services, and in particular counselling, has reached an all-time high. But what is mental health, how is this impacted upon as a person enters the world of higher education and how can we as an institution not only support the students as they experience crisis, but also promote and support positive mental health?

In simple terms, mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects all of us in how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from cradle to grave and will fluctuate constantly over years and throughout each day.

Good mental health is essential to students’ academic success and to their participation in a high quality and rewarding student experience. Empowering students to participate in maintaining or improving their mental health sets the foundation not only for academic success, but also in terms of self-esteem, personal resilience and self-confidence, with increased ability to sustain good mental health throughout their lives.

Starting university, particularly for new school leavers, can bring a lot of new and exciting experiences – but it can also be unsettling. Finding new friends, perhaps in a different city or country, perhaps with a different language, feeling under pressure to drink alcohol, feeling homesick and learning in a different way all bring stressors individually, but collectively they can be overwhelming to some.

As a university we have a role to play in supporting positive mental health, as well as providing support to those who are struggling. University Sport & Exercise recognises the importance of physical activity for promotion of good mental health. There is plenty of evidence that supports physical activity as an effective form of treatment for mild to moderate depression, that supports someone’s ability to sleep, improve self-confidence and self-esteem and also very importantly when at university to form social networks with others who have similar interests and these in themselves become positive for mental health and wellbeing.

In recognition of this, the Support for Physical Activity (SPA) service was developed and has successfully supported inactive students (and staff) for 3 years now to become more physically active and support their mental health and wellbeing. It is a free service and to make an appointment, anyone can self-refer by emailing to find out more or to book an appointment.

Edinburgh University Sports Union work very closely with Sport & Exercise to provide opportunities for students to be active throughout the year either as part of a team through their competitive sports club programme, recreational Intramural sport programme or as one-off events such as EDex where anyone can turn up and have a go. There is an additional focus on physical activity at key points of the year which can support students wellbeing. Look out for the ‘Boost your mood’ events during the exam diet in December. You can find out more about these activities via the Edinburgh University Sports Union.

To keep updated on what is available, you might want to bookmark the student mental health Strategy Page, but also keep an eye on what Sport & Exercise and Sports Union are collectively offering to students right across the campus.

Further sources of support:

NHS Choices  – student mental health

Students Against Depression

Student Minds

UoE Sport & Exercise

Helen Ryall

Helen Ryall is the Head of Active Lives programme based in Sport & Exercise. She joined the team in May 2014 with the remit of developing the Active Lives programme (formerly the Healthy University project) across the University with the focus on student’s health for the first year of development.

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