Gosh the title of this post makes me feel about 110 years old! I first entitled it “wellbeing and mental health” then changed it to “in young people” and now just put “kids”. Hmm none of these seem right but anyway….
This is a subject that is dear to my heart for so many reasons. And one that is obviously much more in focus since the pandemic. Its great that there is more conversation and awareness of mental and health, yet at the same time I worry for our children and young people. Anecdotally the amount of mental health and poor wellbeing I see in our teenagers since the pandemic is shocking. There are so many stories of increased anxiety, eating disorders, nervous conditions, phobias, disengagement and other signs of troubled mental health since lockdown that I cannot think of a teenager who has not been touched by this to a greater or lesser degree. And I guess given that many teenagers spent hours staring at screens with little interaction that it is not surprising. Then just as we start to come out of the pandemic, global politics hits with the war in Ukraine, again having an impact on an already vulnerable group. Even pre-pandemic our teenagers and young people were facing climate change and uncertainty which was impacting negatively on mental health and wellbeing.
This concerns me not just as a mother of 4 but also as these are our future and current students. What can we do?
Yesterday was University mental health day where activities were held in universities to support positive student mental health and ensure students did not feel alone. Never has this been so important for our students coming out of the pandemic, with industrial action and uncertain employment. An event on wellbeing and universities that I went to last year shockingly reported that for 18-21 year olds their mental health was better if they were not in higher education. And universities are trying to do more to understand and support students. I also recently went to a book launch for Preventing and Responding to Student Suicide. At this event, tragic stories were shared about student suicides with a particular focus on the impact upon the wider community. The book addresses these issues with practical advice on how to support families and those bereaved by suicide in a compassionate and engaging way. It also gives case studies of activities that universities have done to build communities and work to prevent student suicide and isolation. I was struck how small things can make a difference, such as universities reaching out to family and friends in a proactive way.
At my own institution, we have been thinking a lot about how to meet the mental health and wellbeing needs of our staff and students, particularly in the light of the development of our new university strategy. We have had some interesting conversations about how and if we should prioritise wellbeing and what wellbeing actually means. What has become clear is that we need to rethink our models of support. It is no longer appropriate to have the entire responsibility for the mental health of our students located solely in our specialist student services. They are doing a great job but demand is high. Whilst clearly there is a need for counselling, mental health and support services, this is not the only response. As the University Mental Health Charter advocates, we must take a whole university approach to this. Student and staff mental health and wellbeing is connected and everyone’s responsibility. Obviously there are things that we need to do strategically and structurally to embed this approach, as many other universities have already done. But, again, I am reminded of the small things that can make a huge difference – greeting students as they walk into teaching rooms, taking the time to know our students’ names, giving people the time to express their feelings, acknowledging people’s anxieties, and actually just taking the time to listen. My coaching programme has sharpened my appreciation of the art of listening and people’s ability to work through their own problems. We don’t have to fix people or resolve their problems, or offer advice or solutions, sometimes people just want someone to listen and acknowledge their situation. “Yes, that sounds hard” can be more powerful than any sentence starting with “why don’t you….” And it can be hard to hold ourselves back, but I think a good start is giving space for compassion.