Why is it important for universities and students' unions to build mental health and wellbeing communities?

In this guest blog, Brook Marshall, founder of Dundee based mental health charity Feeling Strong, talks about building mental health and wellbeing communities, what universities can do to better support their students and the inspiration for starting a mental health charity.

It’s incumbent on universities to make sure they’re taking proactive, positive steps to better support mental health and wellbeing.

Going to university can be a difficult time for young people. Through a combination of moving away from home, being away from your close friends and family, having to find new social circles and the added pressures that study and exams add on top of that, make it a vulnerable stage in their lives.

This is where mental health challenges start to present themselves, especially if these young people don’t have the access and support to mental health and wellbeing communities.

We’re lucky that in this age most universities do have counselling services. It’s important that this is not the end point but a starting point.

How can universities better support their staff and students with mental health and wellbeing?

There are ways universities can support people who have mental health and wellbeing challenges:

  1. Look at your attendance policies
  2. Amend your mitigating circumstances policies
  3. Make sure that classrooms are accessible places
  4. Ensure student support plans are being followed
  5. Make sure helpful materials, slides and PowerPoints are being issued

More specifically, you can look into supporting young people by making sure they have access to more acute wellbeing services like a mental health advisor.

As a former Sabbatical Officer at Abertay University (Abertay Students Association), we were fortunate enough to have a specialist mental health nurse as our mental health advisor.

They did excellent work at going above and beyond to support the students through traditional counselling methods. He was able to provide support on a much longer-term basis for people with severe and enduring mental health challenges.

Providing this type of specialist support is something universities should be looking towards in the future. From speaking to students I knew, this level of support was an absolute godsend and made a really positive impact on their time at university.

Has there been a change in attitudes towards how universities tackle mental health challenges?

There’s been a slow change in mental health attitudes over the last couple of years. Things are moving in a more positive direction.

In the last decade, global campaigns such as World Mental Health Day have inspired national campaigns like University Mental Health Day. These initiatives have become increasingly popular with British universities and showcase the positive change in attitudes towards tackling mental health challenges in the UK.

It’s a great opportunity for universities and students’ unions to collaborate using #UniMentalHealthDay on social media, to run mental health workshops, provide stress relief sessions (homage to the popular puppy cuddling) and use their online services to share stories, blogs and information to help support students.

Another thing that has helped is that institutions are less precious about their academic regulations now. Academic regulations provide the framework to safeguard their academic standards and ensure fair treatment of students studying at university.

Due to this easing of regulations, institutions are more likely to open themselves up to making progressive changes to mitigating circumstances, attendance policies, and supporting those who may be in a mental health crisis.

Founding Feeling Strong: a mental health charity to support young people

As a former Vice President Communities at NUS Scotland and a current trustee at the SCVO, I’m passionate about helping young people.

In 2018, I decided to set up Feeling Strong to do just that – focus solely on supporting young people and improving the lives of people with mental health and wellbeing challenges.

When I was at a particularly vulnerable point in my life, I was on the receiving end of the systemic failures in Dundee towards accessing mental health support. After having experienced how bad things were, it inspired me to take steps to ensure that other people don’t experience the same suffering and pain that I did.

Feeling Strong is a truly service and user-led organisation in a way that I’ve never come across before. Everyone here is a passionate young person providing services for young people. Everyone here gets it, they understand it, and they’re able to support each other better. This shows the power in lived experience.

Lived experience is one of the most valuable forms of expertise that someone who’s helping you can have. Young people face a lot of idiosyncratic challenges that other generations haven’t experienced before, and that means we need to have quite a unique and robust response to that.

It’s vital that we’re providing alternative support for young people who feel more comfortable being supported by peers who have been through similar experiences.

Collaborating with local universities and students’ unions in support of mental health and wellbeing

We have an exciting mental health exam stress campaign coming soon. We’ll be running that in partnership with a couple of local students’ unions and universities in Dundee to help improve the support networks and mental health and wellbeing practices in the community.

We want to make people aware that there are options, that you don’t have to suffer in silence and so they don’t keep trudging on.

We’ll be raising awareness around things like mitigating circumstances, counselling and mental health advice. Ensuring that they have access to activities that are planned by universities and student unions’ in preparation for and during exam week so that young people have an outlet.