“Struggle is normal” – managing your mental health at university

With 25 years’ experience of working with students, Sarah Littlejohn offers her thoughts on how universities, staff and peers can help manage students’ mental health.

Currently the Head of Campus Life within the Directorate of Student Experience at the University, Sarah has more than 25 years of experience working with students in the higher education sector. Much of her career has been at the University, but she has also worked as a psychotherapist, trainer and supervisor, with specialist training in Cognitive Analytic Therapy.

She has been leading the development of the Greater Manchester University Student Mental Health Service (which had its launch event on Monday 18 November) a dedicated centre to support higher education students with mental health needs. The service is a joint project with the other Greater Manchester universities, as well as the NHS, and is funded in part by the region’s devolved health budget.

In many ways, Sarah is still seeing the same problems among students as when she attended university, such as struggling with the transition to a new stage, or difficulties in feeling like they belong. “What’s changed,” she notes, “is that universities have become much more attuned to developmental challenges and hurdles.” They are more aware that “the typical undergraduate is growing up at university, as well as getting a degree.”

Part of this growing awareness is the increasing variety of help on offer. Aside for the new mental health service, the University is also a part of the Big White Wall, an online mental health community. “Big White Wall is available to staff and students,” Sarah points out, explaining; “all they need is their University email address.”

Other forms of help come from an unlikely source – fridge magnets and keychains. The University has been distributing mental health advice and helplines via these items, something Sarah believes can make a significant difference. “You may not call them,” she says, “but the fact you know they’re there can be helpful to some people.”

One of the things which student surveys have revealed is how great a difference seemingly small actions can make. “Every contact counts,” Sarah comments, “whether it’s a smile from a building porter, or a “How’s it going?” from an academic tutor.” The University offers mental health awareness and support training to all of its staff.

Most of all, however, Sarah believes the culture around adversity and mental health at universities needs to change. “People often come to university and are told it’s going to be the best years of their life,” she says, “and we hope it is, but within that, there will be times of struggle, loneliness and anxiety, and these are all absolutely normal.”

You can download and listen to the full conversation and the rest of the University’s podcasts on Spotify.

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