As the new academic year begins, now is the time to focus on student mental health risks

As universities gear up for the new academic year, it’s a timely moment to focus on mental well-being, and the serious difficulties that some young people face in their first weeks and months living away from home.

Starting university is an exciting time for most young people, and the beginning of a major transition – new friends, new opportunities, new life experiences. But many, perhaps the majority, also find it challenging. According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), factors that contribute to students having poor mental health include moving away from home, academic and financial pressures, and the absence of familiar social and emotional support networks.

For a few, that challenge can be overwhelming, and without timely support, there is a risk that they won’t cope.

One of the leading advocates, and experts, on this important issue is Richard Yates, head of security at Sheffield University, and the mental health lead for AUCSO (the Association of University Chief Security Officers). Speaking to Richard this month, we asked him why the mental health challenge matters so much, and what universities can do, practically, to put effective support in place.

First, he says, it’s important to understand the context, and where mental health pressures come from.

Young people arrive at university desperate to fit in, and anxious to succeed. They are looking to establish new friendship groups; to manage the practicalities of living on their own, probably for the first time; and they want to do really well on their courses. If any of one of those things starts to go wrong, problems can spiral.

Isolation, and the weight of expectations, can make even minor problems seem much worse.

Today’s students face financial pressures, as previous generations did not, with rising costs and student debt. They are worried about their own futures and, increasingly, about the future of the planet. Add to that, the ever-present pressures of social media, and the pressures of living up to the expectations of their families – NICE highlights the mental health risks to students who are focused on the possibility of failure and who are experiencing imposter syndrome or perfectionism.

International students have to deal with added difficulties. They face the dislocation of being suddenly immersed in a foreign culture and environment, perhaps with language challenges, and perhaps cut off from family contact by time-zone differences. For them, home can suddenly seem a very long way off.

Data, analysed by Richard Yates and others, highlights particular risk times: in October/November, when students have been away from home for a while, when troubles can set in, and when the initial excitement of leaving home has worn off; and in the January-March build-up to exams, when study pressures can become intense. Students may be tempted to overwork, and to use stimulants to try to keep awake and improve performance. But lack of sleep can have a disastrous effect on mental stability and sound decision-making.

So what strategies can universities adopt, to help students overcome these pressures?

At Sheffield, the security services team works closely with clinical support services, because students in crisis can present at both. All Richard’s responders are qualified mental health first aiders, and around half are also ‘Assist’ trained in applied suicide intervention.

Through AUCSO, excellent training programmes have been developed with the support of Mental Health England, which universities can take advantage of.

In the past, suicide was a subject that institutions – like individuals – were reluctant to talk about, partly through lack of understanding and partly through fear of reputational damage. But it’s vital that universities face the risks head on, he says. It is common – really common – for students experiencing problems to think of taking their own lives.

So they need to know where, and how, they can get rapid support.

For example, In Sheffield’s outreach events and campaigns to promote SafeZone, officers make it crystal clear that the ‘first aid’ button on the phone application is not just there for physical first aid, but for mental first aid as well.

And for everyone with an interest in student welfare, it’s important to understand that some people will need more encouragement to ask for help than others. Some cultures, for example, encourage people to hide their feelings, or to bury them, and that can lead to greater isolation.

In his understanding of these challenges, and his determination to tackle them, Richard draws on his own military background: “We were told that you should never show your feelings, it was a weakness,” he recalls. “Well how wrong the military were. It’s absolutely not a weakness.”

At Sheffield, the SafeZone app has a wellbeing assistance button at the top, which links to advice about keeping well. It is, says Richard, a really good tool. But the most important buttons are the first aid and emergency ones. It’s those that the security team at Sheffield promote most actively.

Often, it’s concerned students who reach out on behalf of their friends. This is a fact that we should find encouraging. When people are looking out for each other, it means they are less isolated than they might think.

And when people have the means to ask for help, and when they know what to do, it’s a sign that the right measures are in place.

People don’t always feel comfortable picking up the phone to ask for help, and it’s much easier to press a button on the SafeZone app. Once that is done of course, security teams know where that person is, and officers can attend, and make an assessment.

If someone is in crisis, it’s standard practice to stay with that individual for at least half an hour; sometimes response will need to be escalated, and emergency services called. In some cases, with services stretched, at Sheffield that has involved officers waiting for up to six hours.

But most times, just having an officer attend in a timely way is all it takes to de-escalate a situation and prevent self-harm.

This strategy does take resourcing, and at Sheffield operations have been streamlined to allow it. But Richard is clear that it works. Increasing responses in this way decreases the likelihood of critical incidents occurring.

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