In this mini-series blog post, Dr Rosie Stenhouse, a lecturer in Nursing Studies, reflects on the challenges staff and students can face in supporting mental health difficulties…
Within the UK, there is an increasing incidence of mental health problems within the adolescent population. Students entering university are therefore more likely to have existing mental health issues than in the past. Transition to university adds additional stressors – moving away from existing support networks, taking on new life responsibilities and trying to assimilate into university life – to the existing challenge of being a young person in the 21st century. This has led Student Minds to develop support materials to help the transition to university; resources that I have just discovered and think might be useful for the future.
I have a background in mental health nursing, and my main teaching role is the mental health content on the Honours nursing programme. I am used to talking about mental health and listening to people’s stories. That students know me through my mental health teaching means that I often find myself listening to their concerns about mental health and supporting them to find help within the university and/or mental health services. Perhaps it is the increasing visibility of discourses around mental health, alongside the increasingly complex context of being a student that have increased both the numbers seeking support and altered the nature of the presenting distress. This year my colleagues and I have supported an increasing number of students experiencing high levels of distress and, of increasing concern, suicidal ideation. Whilst it is excellent that students are seeking someone to talk to about these issues, undeniably it can present challenges for staff.
Firstly, whilst there is information to enable staff to deal with distressed students, this relies on the availability of university support services such as counselling, and also of NHS services as channels of support for students in distress. Recent experience of trying to find support for very distressed students highlighted the pressure that all such services are under, and the real difficulties in gaining such support. This can leave staff feeling isolated and ill equipped whilst still trying to support students who they recognise need expert support from those with specialist training.
Secondly, there is a need to consider the impact the provision of this support may have on staff, listening to stories which they, themselves, might find distressing and think about the provision of space and support for staff to reflect on, and process, these experiences. As the university continues to develop its strategies for student support the support of its staff must be an intrinsic part of these plans.
Finally, one of the surprises of the last academic session was the extent to which students asked to be provided with the skills to manage conversations with people who are experiencing mental health difficulties. As part of the Year 2 mental health course I asked the Choose Life coordinator for Edinburgh City to run SafeTalk training with the nursing students. This half-day training enabled them to understand how they might listen to and manage conversations around suicidal ideas. Students reported that this was hugely helpful and when further dates for training were identified, there was an overwhelming response (beyond the nursing student community).
Students are around their peers all of the time, and they can find themselves in positions of having (sometimes difficult) conversations about mental health with friends. Building their capacity to listen and manage these conversations would enable them to feel more confident and enable students to talk about their mental health before it becomes a significant problem. This can save lives. Building student capacity might also facilitate understanding and community building, and provide skills and values that our graduates take into their lives beyond the university. It is worth noting that NHS Education for Scotland and NHS Health Scotland have developed three new animated videos to address issues around talking about mental health issues.
Issues around the mental wellbeing of the university community cannot be addressed without shifting our thinking towards mental health being everybody’s concern. To do this, we need to build the capacity of all to feel confident and able to have conversations about mental health and suicide. A small beginning perhaps, but might not university strategists consider preparing some staff as SafeTalk trainers to enable the delivery of this basic skill to those who wish it across the university community?