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Are you the parent or carer of a university student? If so, let them know that this year University Mental Health Day falls on Thursday 5 March. In fact, it’s always the first Thursday of March.

These days, an increasing number of students experience poor mental health. The NHS’ mental health services are struggling with resources, in crisis and unable to quickly help far too many people. So it’s important to help create more awareness of both University Mental Health Day and to start talking about the increasingly poor mental health in our young people.

I hear from parents that having a child of any age struggling with a mental health illness, or a combination, is one of the hardest things they ever have to deal with.

When I reflect on my university days, I’m not sure that mental health pressures were even discussed. Not much, anyway. Whereas these days, we are beginning to talk about societal pressures and mental health a bit more. Not enough, but it’s a start. We do, at least, see trigger warnings on social media posts that may have particularly sensitive or upsetting content. I’ll come back to the pros and cons of social media later, but here’s one now:

*TRIGGER WARNING* Self harm/suicide talk in this paragraph:

I’ll never forget one particularly shocking instance when I was at university. It was the end of term; most other people had left the hall of residence and I came across someone who had slit his wrists in one of the communal bathrooms. He was slumped, barely conscious but still alive. I rushed off to find some adults to help. I didn’t know who he was and never found out what happened, but I can say that I never saw him again.

Statistics show that there is a student mental health crisis in the UK. According to this article published by the Mental Health Foundation in October 2018, which uses statistics from various sources, over 15,000 first-year students in the UK reported that they had a mental health problem in 2015/16, compared to approximately 3,000 in 2006. It’s now 2020 – I dread to think what those figures look like now.

University pressures can be immense. The same is true of schools and colleges, of course, especially peer pressure. But for many young people, starting their university life is the first step into independent adulthood. Finally, people are beginning to talk more, open up about their problems, but it’s still a slow process. Universities providing support and resources where possible is a really good start.

The most obvious way to help stop the stigma about mental health issues is to talk. Share what’s going on within your community to help create awareness and change. That certainly seems to be one of the premises of University Mental Health Day. They state:

“We need to work together to improve the university experience, allowing students to succeed and thrive during their time at university. You can help us to do this … Join us this #UniMentalHealthDay and join a movement of people sharing their experiences, fighting stigma and promoting support to change the future of student mental health.”

Parents can help – if you’re a parent, tell your children about University Mental Health Day if they don’t already know. Share this information with them. By sharing, it helps to open up that conversation with you, too. Often, our young people tend to shy away from talking with their parents, so this would be a good step towards starting important conversations.

Mental Health Illnesses Need Proper Treatment

Mental health illnesses are real psychological illnesses that need proper treatment, just as cancer does. Sadly, resources are so desperately lacking. There is a crisis in mental health service provision. And this means that young people – or people of any age with mental health illnesses – are being failed.

There are many reasons why our young people are suffering more these days. Here are a few of my thoughts as to why – I’m sure there are more:

  • Social media can be harmful. Young people tend to follow ‘influencers’ on Instagram and other social media platforms who promote products and ideas that are totally unrealistic. If a young person has the genetic predisposition to mental health illnesses such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression, they can be triggered by these posts.
  • Peer pressure on social media can also be harmful. It feels like everyone is living a wonderful, happy life – everyone except you. Young people don’t necessarily have the life experience or maturity to understand that people put on a façade for their social media posts. Or that they enjoy the anonymity to be able to post abusive or bullying things.
  • Social media can also be good! I am aware of many supportive and knowledgeable groups on Facebook, for instance, where people can get the help and support they need that may not be available from their local mental health services.
  • Our pace of life is much faster these days, probably not helped by the internet and the higher expectations put on us. Everyone – not just students – needs to learn to have downtime, to relax and slow down, spend quality time with family and friends.
  • And, much though I hate to suggest this, there are many parents out there who do too much for their children. Snow plough parents who clear any difficult obstacles for them, such as doing their child’s homework or entering competitions on their behalf. Schools can also be partly to blame as many encourage children not to be losers – everyone’s a winner in the school egg and spoon race. That’s not helping children to learn to face real life. Children need to know what it feels like to lose. Teachers and parents need to better manage their young people’s life expectations.

Stop Pretending, Start Talking

All of the above is why we need to make a stand ourselves and talk. We need to stop putting on a façade and be open about what’s troubling us. We need to be brave and ask for help. And we need to learn how to support one another.

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