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First Aid for students’ mental health

10 October 2016

Today is World Mental Health Day. Its theme ‘Psychological First Aid’ seems to be particularly relevant to the university experiences faced by some young people.

When students transition to university life, it can pose a risk to their wellbeing. Various factors, such as social media pressures, financial instability and a competitive job market feed into the stress continuum that students fall into.

Universities need to provide appropriate support services that students can access easily in times of difficulty. Research on the mental health of students is vital when investigating this issue and its possible solutions.

Anxiety and stress

Tsvetina Ivanova - Quote

When looking at the figures of counselling services users we can trace the same trend. A noticeable rise in the number of users of both university counselling services and student-led support services is present across many universities in the UK. Statistics from this year’s Counselling, Health and Wellbeing service at Cardiff University observed a 30% rise in students completing an application form, or attending a drop-in or a workshop.

Raising awareness

The author of the HEPI report, Poppy Brown, draws our attention to one of the factors that could possibly influence this data. When reporting on prevalence rates of mental disorders among students, a lot of researchers fail to define their method and terminology. This could lead to incorrect assumptions that reinforce the distress of the general population. More importantly, it often misleads students into thinking they suffer from mental disorders which they believe they are prone to developing.

It is crucial to work towards justifying key classifications that are used in the mental health literature in order to tackle the problem of students’ potentially poor wellbeing. The Counselling, Health and Wellbeing Service at Cardiff University has endorsed a movement named Time to Change’ that challenges some of the unhealthy stereotypes and calls for a change in the discussion of mental health problems.

Jo Pinder, a Counsellor from the Student Wellbeing Team, organises a Time to Change Student Working Group that includes students who want to help minimise the stigma by openly sharing ideas that challenge the existing misconceptions.

Student engagement

Students themselves can be of a great help to one another when working towards better wellbeing. Research suggests that less than 1% of students disclose a mental health condition to their academic institution but 75% would be willing to share those to a fellow student.

The Wellbeing Team at Cardiff University has launched a programme entitled Wellbeing Champions’ that trains students to actively promote health and wellbeing. Wellbeing Champions are able to provide a ‘Peer Ear’ and signpost students to the relevant support they might need. The programme aims to raise awareness of the Student Support Services and create a sense of community amongst students that will help them cope better with mental health difficulties.

Students from the Wellbeing Champions scheme get involved in frequent events named ‘Hotspots’ in academic schools. At these events students are encouraged to discuss their wellbeing with their peer supporters and fill in a short wellbeing self-assessment questionnaire in order to help them manage their mental health. The Wellbeing Champions are then able to offer further advice or signpost students to Student Support or other services if needed.

Cardiff and Psychological First Aid

The Counselling, Health and Wellbeing Team at Cardiff University has spent years in developing their ‘Cardiff Model’ which revolutionised university counselling services by offering an effective and timely model of service delivery. The introduction of this model helped in removing the endless waiting list for counselling appointments by providing a short-term solution-focused therapy.

When applying to see a Counsellor or Wellbeing Practitioner, students complete an online questionnaire that is solution-focused and is designed to allow the student to begin their therapeutic process there and then. Electronic questionnaire data from 2013 indicates that 26% of students who applied for support and then declined appointments did so because they found completing the online questionnaire sufficiently helpful. Substantial research has shown that writing about our negative experiences can have a positive effect on our wellbeing, which gives the student their first boost of improvement.

Learning about Wellbeing

The Counselling, Health and Wellbeing team recognises that the support that they offer to students cannot be limited to counselling services. The service also provides self-help resources online that consist of useful information, tools, videos and links for further support. They cover numerous topics including more sensitive ones that some students may feel uncomfortable discussing.

The need for education on wellbeing s is also considered by the Self-Management and Wellbeing Awareness Programme of workshops that the Wellbeing Team runs.  They are created to improve students’ understanding of mental health and wellbeing by delivering presentations in a small group setting and encouraging relevant group activities and discussions. The topics that they cover range from managing anxiety, overcoming homesickness or loneliness to practising mindfulness and desk yoga.

Tsvetina Ivanova is a third year Psychology student doing her placement year in the Counselling, Health and Wellbeing Team. She is a Wellbeing Champions Coordinator and is facilitating workshops, strategy groups and blogs for the Wellbeing Team. She has an interest in mindfulness and yoga and their effect on wellbeing and will be involved in a mindfulness based research project this year as well.