On the afternoon of 27th April, I rushed down to Bloomsbury in time to attend the CPD25 event: Supporting Students and Staff with Mental Health Disorders. I had been very much looking forward to this event so I could learn more about how we can better look after our students (and staff) during their time in HE, which whilst a very exciting time, can also be a time of great pressure and stress for some students.
Although I have worked with City’s Student Mental Health and Counselling department and created our own Books on Prescription resource with them, I was keen to find out how better to support students in a practical way at point of need and also to promote wellbeing more generally. It’s also an interesting time for these discussions about a whole university approach as Universities UK recently launched the Step Change project “[University Leaders] should adopt mental health as a strategic priority, implementing a whole university approach, with students and staff involved at all stages of the journey.”
Recognising poor wellbeing and how to have difficult conversations about mental health.
The first of the talks came from Anne Thomas from Mind in the City – A Mental Health Charity which empowers and supports people experiencing mental health difficulties.
We started with some definitions of mental health as a state of mental wellbeing where we can function fully in society to our full potential whilst having the resilience to cope with the normal stresses of life.
Anne then presented some of the HE specific stats. 78% of students reported experiencing mental health issues in the last year – but less than half had sought support!
Students can become vulnerable at University because they are:
- Moving away from support networks, in many cases for the first time
- Academic pressure
- Financial worries
- The uncertainty of getting a job.
66% of academics with mental health issues say their ill health is directly related to work. This was very interesting and whilst I was aware of a rise in figures for both student and staff mental health difficulties, I hadn’t really thought as much about how we can support staff mental health and wellbeing.
Anne touched on some of the reasons why we shy away from exploring student mental health: we may be unconfident or weary of not knowing what to say, how to respond or what questions we should or shouldn’t be asking. This is where the Taking 10 Together toolkit MHFA comes in.
This is like a First Aid kit for Mental Health and gives people the skills and confidence to recognise the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues and effectively guide towards the right support. Having a 10-minute chat is the first step on that journey.
Some of the triggers which can cause mental health to suffer could be personal life changes such as bereavement, relationship breakdown or illness. There are also many student specific triggers such as deadlines and exams, financial difficulties and pressures adapting to University life.
Symptoms reported include stress, lack of energy or motivation, anxiety, insomnia and depression.
Spotting signs of mental ill health
Signs in physical appearance
- Lack of care of appearance
- Suffering from frequent minor illness
- Rundown, frequent stomach upsets
- Difficulty sleeping / constant tiredness
- Sudden weight loss or gain
Emotional and behavioural signs
- Irritability, aggression, tearfulness
- Increased consumption of caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes or sedatives Indecision
- Inability to concentrate
- Erratic or socially unacceptable behaviour
- Being louder or more exuberant than usual
- Loss of confidence
- Difficulty remembering things
- Loss of humour
Tips for starting a conversation
Choose a setting where you can talk privately. Choose a neutral space like a café. Don’t appear to be in a hurry and make sure there are no distractions, such as phones.
- Aim for open body language
- Keep chat positive and supportive
- Do not offer advice such as “pull yourself together” or “cheer up”
Useful questions to ask
- “I have noticed…”
- How are you feeling? How long have you felt like that?
- Who can you go to for help?
- Are there any university-related factors which are contributing to how you are feeling?
- Is there anything we can do to help?
- Give your full attention and do not interrupt
- Pay attention to their words, tone of voice and body language which will give a sense of how they are feeling
- Accept their feelings. Do not judge or criticise them
- Show empathy, demonstrate to them that you hear and understand what they are saying and feeling
- Follow up, ask them how they are. Reassure them that they can talk to you.
- Tell them about other sources of support and those available through the university
- It’s also appropriate to encourage the person to visit their GP for guidance around accessing the NHS funded programme ‘Improving Access to Psychological Therapies’ (IAPT).
Libraries; the hearts and minds of the community.
Sarah Lungley the mental health and wellbeing coordinator at Suffolk Libraries.
As a public library, Suffolk is doing a lot of great work helping to support the mental health needs of a diverse community. They receive around 3 million visits each year and about 100,000 of their enquiries are concerned with well-being. They have been funded since 2010 to provide resources for mental health and mental health information.
Sarah launched the New Chapters initiative in 2016, the Mental Health and Wellbeing Information Service.
Their first foray into supporting mental health was with self-help resources. They had bought, promoted and loaned books from the Read Well Books on Prescription initiative. They have found that loan rates for these resources are quite high in Suffolk. The resource also has strong links with GPs and health organisations. The library promotes the literature through events, competitions (such as to design posters and flyers), and via connections with Schools.
Other activities around mental health Suffolk are involved in are:
Events and Information Stalls which are hosted in the Library and benefit from being in a neutral environment, attracting natural footfall. Events tie in with national and local campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness week.
Open Space involves using the library space for a variety of activates around mental health support, awareness and promotion. Activities include knowledge sharing, discussions and activities such as walks drawing on staff expertise; displays which give people the space to write what they are feeling for example what “happiness” means to them; accessible physical activities such as yoga in the library. The library also loans out outdoor game equipment.
Partnership working: The Library is really successful at leveraging partnerships. They are working in partnership with Time to Change, a campaign to reduce mental health stigma and discrimination and raise awareness. They are working towards becoming a Time to Change employer.
The Library is also working in partnership with Suffolk Family Carers and Suffolk Mind as SAGES . The library’s role in the partnership is to “make information and support more visible and accessible, and help people better understand their wellbeing.” Staff training in specific areas, including FGM Awareness, Mental Health Fist Aid, Effective communication with people in distress and drug and alcohol awareness.
Cultural Collections as sources for (mental) wellbeing
Thomas Kador UCL.
Thomas framed his presentation in the concept of a holistic approach to mental wellbeing to facilitate general wellbeing for everyone, mirroring the shift in healthcare from treatment to health promotion.
This could be helped through Library collections and spaces which have become more communal and social in their role.
The second part of the context setting was that museums and heritage sites had successfully harnessed their collections to support and promote wellbeing, such as through the Museums and Wellbeing Alliance – but what about academic libraries and archives?
Thomas spoke about the opportunity of using library and archive holdings to foster wellbeing. In one project he assigned items to UCL students to research. One student was given a manuscript and wrote about it from the perspective of someone with mental health difficulties and how it could facilitate recovery from mental illness, highlighting the beauty of the item.
Some other practical examples from other libraries include:
- Adding the Books on Prescription resources to your collections
- Kings College London dedicated some of their spaces to trial a Wellbeing Room this exam season with scheduled events such as calligraphy, mindful colouring, origami on recycled paper, yoga and tai chi.
- The Study Happy @ Warwick campaign which also had a dedicated schedule of activities such as “deskercise”, smoothie bike and a ukulele workshop. They also have a stress penguin which went down well (could we have stress farm animals – it would be kinder than the petting zoo?). They had a wall where students could write and share their de stressing tips, and they also hosted de stressing animals.
Finally Thomas recommended some positive steps libraries can take to further support wellbeing:
- Join the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance which is free.
- Identify key periods of stress and anxiety for students and what you can do to support them.
- Ask for expert support from your institution’s mental health and wellbeing departments or local or national organisations.
- Think about how your collections and spaces can be turned into assets for positive mental health.
This interesting talk got me thinking about how we can use City’s Archive for our communities in outreach work or as a therapeutic aid for health – such as looking through old photographs and capturing oral histories of alumni.
After the excellent presentations there followed a sharing session where libraries talked about their own experiences and things they were doing to promote good mental wellbeing. There were more than a few mentions of coming together to share tea and cake to draw people in and make them happy!