Mental Health problems
Definition of mental health
The term 'mental health problems' is one that encompasses a range of experiences and situations. Mental health might usefully be viewed as a continuum of experience, from mental well-being through to a severe and enduring mental illness. We all experience changes in our mental health state, influenced by social, personal, financial and other factors. Major life events such as a close bereavement, or leaving home, can impact significantly on how we feel about ourselves, for example, leading to depression and anxiety.
A minority of people may experience mental health problems to such a degree that they may be diagnosed as having a mental illness, requiring the involvement of specialist services and support. The majority of people will not experience mental illness, but will undoubtedly experience mental health problems at different times in their lives. Our mental well-being is an issue for all of us to consider all of the time, as we might consider our physical well-being.
Given support and information people experiencing mental health problems can make positive changes and improvements. Only a small minority of people do not respond to appropriate help and therefore need more specialist involvement.
Supporting students with mental health problems
The purpose is to provide information for those who might offer support to a student experiencing difficulties. The information considers what mental health problems are, how to recognise when someone is struggling with them, and the range of support services within the University that can provide consultation, advice and more direct involvement to best support the student and those around them.
An increasing number of students at University are experiencing mental health problems that impact not only on their academic work, but also on all other aspects of their University life. Mental health problems not only have implications for the student involved, but often also for those around them: friends, colleagues, staff and family.
It is acknowledged that supporting someone experiencing mental health problems is often difficult and challenging, and that people should not feel alone in such situations. If in doubt, there are services that you can contact for guidance and support in confidence.
Recognising mental health distress
Signs and Symptoms: Recognising Mental Health Distress
It is important to acknowledge that mental health problems can present in a wide variety of ways, depending upon the individual and the circumstances. What perhaps is most important is to consider if possible how a person seems in relation to how they usually are. Changes in people's mood and personality can provide important indicators as to how they are feeling. Unusual mood swings or social withdrawal might, for example, provide some indication that the person is experiencing some degree of emotional distress. Essentially, it is difficult to define what is 'normal', other than to use an individual's usual behaviour as a point of comparison.Clearly it is not always possible to make such comparisons when dealing with someone for the first time or with little prior knowledge of them. The following list might help you become alert to the presence of emotional distress - the list is not a diagnostic tool, but rather a collection of signs that might indicate that the person is experiencing some degree of mental health difficulty.
- Erratic or unpredictable behaviour;
- Agitation or overt anxiety;
- Social withdrawal / avoidance of social interaction or contact;
- Unexplained or prolonged crying;
- Change or disturbance in eating / sleeping patterns;
- Incoherent speech;
- Physical ill-health;
- Hearing Voices;
- Behaviour inappropriate to the social context;
- Any verbalised thoughts of suicide / harm.
It is important to recognise that we all may experience one or more of these factors at given points in our lives, and that none of the above in isolation indicate a severe or enduring mental illness. The presence of these factors might suggest a need for greater concern or investigation and therefore are a useful aide memoir when offering support to individuals.
If you are concerned that someone you are supporting exhibits any of the above indicators, then you are able to consult one of the support agencies within the University (listed at the end of this leaflet), without necessarily giving the name of the person involved. An appropriate response can then be discussed and agreed.
Responding to mental health distress
Increasingly, the use of a case conference has provided a useful forum for a range of departments to discuss particular concerns and situations. Such meetings can include all relevant departments, i.e. academic department, Student and Examinations, Welfare & Advisory Services, Counselling Service, Student Health etc. so that all parties are able to obtain accurate and relevant information about a situation and decide a best course of action. This is particularly useful when mental health distress presents in University Residences, which is often the case.
When initiating a case conference it is important to consider such factors as confidentiality, privacy, providing information on a 'need to know' basis, and whether the particular individuals concerned would be invited, or how decisions would be communicated.
The case conference forum is able to consider all factors in context, for example, so that academic issues are considered alongside other influencing factors. It is important to remember when supporting an individual with mental health problems that existing University procedures and protocols play an important part in the response the individual receives and are best not by-passed. A case conference provides an opportunity to develop a cohesive response to both a student's personal and academic wellbeing.
In line with the issues highlighted in Case Conferences, the importance of maintaining the academic perspective is key. Often, for most individuals, the presence of mental health problems is transitory and with appropriate support people are able to make positive changes and improvements. When considering an individual's academic performance, the experience of mental health problems during the course of the academic year may be a mitigating factor in explaining the under-performance of a student.
For those individuals whose mental health distress develops into a more serious mental illness, the introduction of specialist support systems may well provide for the individual to return to their studies in the future, or to continue with their studies with additional backup. All of these situations can inform the academic process, rather than overtake it.
In rare circumstances a situation might require an urgent response to ensure the immediate safety of an individual or individuals. It is important that you have the confidence to call on emergency services, such as an ambulance or the Police via the University emergency number: 2222.
Both the Ambulance Service and the Police are trained in managing situations involving people experiencing severe mental health distress. Clearly, avoiding such circumstances is preferable if at all possible, but such situations do occur, if very occasionally.
Following an emergency or serious situation, please ensure that you follow the procedures in the following leaflet, "Guidelines on Dealing with Student Deaths or Serious Incidents Involving Students".