Mental health: Students told to mind how they go
A shocking new Ulster University study has revealed 78% of young people in higher education have had a mental health issue including suicidal thoughts and self-harming. Stephanie Bell reports on the new Mind Your Mood campaign to support sufferers here.
The number of young people struggling with mental health problems increases dramatically when they go to university and this has led to a new move to support students while they are in the higher education system.
Research by the Ulster University, which is part of a global study into student mental health, has revealed some frightening statistics.
The findings show that 78% of students here have a mental health disorder, with 33% having suicidal thoughts and one in five young people in higher education self-harming.
Siobhan O’Neill, Professor of Mental Health Sciences at the Ulster University, who has conducted many leading studies into mental health, describes the findings as alarming.
“The rates were really very high,” says Professor O’Neill.
“Students nowadays are suffering more mental health problems than ever before.
“Years ago it was only the very privileged who went to university and they didn’t have to work alongside their studies.
“Now though there is a lot more pressure on students to be both socially and academically successful.
“Many are also juggling part-time jobs or roles as carers with their studies.”
The details of the survey coincide with the Mind Your Mood campaign launched in September by Student Support at the university — a strategy which was aimed at raising awareness of mental health among students as well as providing early interventions for anyone struggling with anxiety or depression.
And there has been a good response to the initiative so far with hundreds of students attending workshops on mental health.
Meanwhile, the university is also encouraging as many people as possible to take part in next week’s Belfast City Marathon to raise funds to support the ongoing work on student mental health.
Professor O’Neill adds: “This was one of the biggest studies we have conducted involving 900 students and is part of wider research at other colleges around the world.
“We at the university are quite concerned by the results, as all universities are, and want to do something practical to address the situation.
“It is really important that we’re looking at this as the figures are way too high, and it is unacceptable that many students are suffering in silence.”
She adds: “If we have the opportunity to get them help in an enclosed environment like university then we should be doing that.
“From a selfish point of view we are investing a lot of money in educating people and we need to protect that investment, but also we need to tackle the stigma and get students talking about mental health.”
The research is ongoing and, as part of the initiative, the university has taken DNA samples from students for a scientific study which may lead to screening in a bid to identify young people at a higher risk of mental health issues.
With 78% of students saying they have had a mental health problem over the past year, 33% having suicidal thoughts, and one in five self-harming, Professor O’Neill says the findings show a spike in figures once young people move into higher education.
“One in five students are self-harming and this is a major increase from secondary school where studies show it is one in 10.
“It is more common among high achievers and perfectionists and this is something that clearly needs to be addressed.
“More young people are talking about mental health which is really positive but there are still a lot who don’t seek help.
“We have a number of specialist services in place, including a helpline and free counselling. We urge students to use these and get help.
“We want to try and help them while at university before it impacts on their employment and careers.”
You can support the campaign at ulster.ac.uk/mindyourmood
‘After my friend died I had panic attacks every day’
Someone who knows first-hand just how frightening anxiety can be and how quickly it can take hold is marketing student Colin McKee, who is co-ordinating the Mind Your Mood campaign during his placement year.
Colin (22), from Glengormley, started having panic attacks when he was 19 and was diagnosed with “health anxiety”.
He had lost a number of people, including a teenage friend, when he started to suffer from anxiety and developed a crippling fear that he was going to die.
He sought help early and is now well recovered and keen to be able to give something back.
During his illness Colin was so worried about having a heart attack that he gave up all sports, and it is an indication of how far he has come in his recovery that he now plans to run the Belfast Marathon to raise funds for the campaign.
He recalls how mental ill health impacted on his life. “I was just turning 20 and wasn’t looking after myself at the time. I wasn’t eating properly and was drinking too much. My body was telling me I wasn’t looking after myself and mentally I started to suffer,” he says. “I’d never had any signs of mental health issues before and I didn’t think mental health was a real thing.”
However, Colin’s wellbeing began to deteriorate.
“I started to notice real changes in my thoughts and feelings which led to panic attacks. Before I knew it I was taking panic attacks every day — often involving 4am trips to Antrim Area Hospital to have my heart examined,” he says.
“I thought I was dying every single day, I would sit and research information on brain tumours and heart attacks and was convinced I was going to die.”
He was then diagnosed with health anxiety which he adds is “very real”. “If I had even a little pain I believed I was going to take a heart attack,” says Colin. “I had lost a friend which knocked me for six. At that age you think you will live until you’re 70, but my friend was only 21 when he died.
“Before that my girlfriend’s dad had a heart attack and death just became very real to me. I was petrified of dying. I played football twice a week and went to the gym and I stopped it all because I was afraid of having a heart attack.”
As his symptoms got worse Colin started to suffer from depression which made going to university and dealing with his coursework and exams difficult. This in turn exacerbated his anxiety and depression.
Unlike so many other young people who don’t talk about it, Colin did seek help early. When told by his GP there was a six-month waiting list for counselling he turned to local mental health charities.
“I knew I needed support right away and I couldn’t wait. I contacted the React Rethink charity in Monkstown and took part in a six-week workshop which was brilliant,” he says.
“They explained what was happening to me and it helped me to understand. I also had counselling with Lighthouse in Belfast for six weeks and with Aware where I took part in a programme on mental health. Thanks to the help I got I am now almost free of anxiety.”
When Colin heard about the launch of Mind Your Mood and realised there was a vacancy for a co-ordinator he applied and was thrilled to get the job as part of his third year placement with his degree.
He saw it as a chance to give something back, adding: “I feel I owe something because of the help I got and it’s great that I’m able to have this chance during my placement year. We’ve held about 25 workshops so far which were attended by between 10 and 40 students for each session. Many of those have mental health issues and some are studying mental health. Others know someone who has problems and wanted to find out how they could help them. This is something I am very passionate about and it’s great to have the chance to be an advocate for it.”
Young men in particular find it hard to talk about their mental health which is thought to be one of the reasons why suicide rates are higher for men.
Colin says he can understand why young men struggle to seek help and urged his peers not to suffer in silence. “There is a real culture where men think it’s cool to be seen as tough. You want people to see you can handle your feelings, but the reality is different. Men definitely need to start asking for help.”
He adds: “This is why programmes like Mind Your Mood are vital. Having a positive mental health campaign and workshops on campus is helping break down the stigma and encouraging students to access support. That is why I’m running the Belfast marathon for Mind Your Mood to raise much needed funds to ensure that we are able to continue to provide this type of support and education to students at the Ulster University.”
Five ways you can protect your mental health
1. Talk about how you feel; be honest with yourself and others — this is vital to retaining healthy relationships
2. Be kind to yourself; forgive yourself for mistakes big and small. Equally praise yourself when you do something well
3. Eat regularly, try to avoid processed food, alcohol and keep caffeine to a minimum
4. Be active; exercise gives both joy and anger a healthy outlet as well as being physically beneficial. Try and fit in a fun activity to your day too such as walking, going to the cinema and seeing friends
5. Relax; it’s important to take a break be that finishing work at a regular hour, taking lunch breaks to weekend getaways