Fighting the stigma

With one in four people likely to suffer from mental ill-health, looks at what the NUS are doing to eradicate the stigma amongst students

One in four people will experience mental ill-health at some stage of their life. A fact many people will be surprised by due to the fact mental ill-health remains very much a taboo subject.

The problem is the stigma surrounding mental health makes the problem far worse. Time to Change, a charity set up to eradicate mental ill-health stigma, has found that a staggering nine out of ten people who suffer from mental ill-health difficulties experience stigma and discrimination. With such thought being so prevalent, it is little surprise that people who think they may need help are unlikely to ask for it.

It is no secret that university can be a breeding ground for mental ill-health difficulties: being away from home, financial stress and dubious diets can make university a difficult experience for many. In light of this, the NUS have decided to up their campaign to eradicate mental health stigma by forming a partnership with Time to Change. Hannah Paterson, the NUS disability officer, recently visited York as part of her plan to unite student unions and charities from across the country, to challenge how we perceive and deal with mental ill-health issues.

One of the issues Hannah identified as being incredibly worrying for mental healthcare is the proposed cuts in funding for student health. “Moving away from just the mental ill-health awareness, healthcare is a really political thing. Things like counselling services are currently being removed or cut back on by the government as a result in the change in how universities are funded.” While it is certainly true that despite the fact more students are seeking help than ever before many universities have to cut back on their mental health facilities due to government funding.

Hannah believes that the governments further education funding reforms are also directly damaging to students mental wellbeing. “Financial issues such as the stress of having such a large debt (with students now paying more than ever) along with the actual stress of getting a degree all adds to mental health problems despite the fact that they are often seen as peripheral and separate to a universities mental health services. We have been doing a lot of work in preventing cuts in individual student unions and looking at the way universities are set up to support mental health, so looking at educational things such as mitigating circumstances and how universities are set up to support people during exams.”

Whilst the financial barriers imposed on mental healthcare do need to be overcome, Hannah has identified the biggest barrier to mental health recovery as the first and most difficult one, speaking out and asking for help. “People are still scared to talk about mental health issues and the things people do in response to them also demonstrate that mental health stigma still exists. Those first few steps of getting help and support is one of the biggest issues which people see a stigma surrounding and are largely ignorant about”

One of the things the NUS and YUSU in York have done to encourage people to seek help is by publicising just how common mental health is: it is likely you will have seen posters and stickers around campus in recent weeks aiming to get people talking about mental ill-health.

Whilst it is important that people do know how common an issue it is, it is also important that they do not lose sight of what the statistics mean. “It is about knowing the statistics but also about knowing that those statistics are people. So potentially its people in your course or your flatmates, I mean if you are living with four people, statistically one of those people will suffer from some sort of mental health issue at some point. If you look around any given room its probable you will see people with mental health problems. If they haven’t spoken about it, it is likely due to the fact a lot of stigma is still there.”

Earlier this month the NUS held a conference in partnership with Mind which saw 100 student representatives and charity working together to come up with an action plan. Hannah was pleased with the progress the conference made “It was brilliant, we brought together spokes people from student unions, from universities and from large charities who deal with mental health and looked at what we as a partnership could achieve. We also looked at government policies and reforms, so things like Michael Gove’s awful new A level education reforms and how that does affect mental health. We look at national policies like that but also forward to the future election, such as manifesto pledges surrounding mental health.”

However its not just students the NUS wishes to educate on mental health, but also staff. Working alongside Time to Change Hannah has been looking at how university and NUS workers can be supported if they are suffering from any mental health problems. “I have been working very closely with Time to Change, which is a charity that works very closely with Mind and the government. They have been trying to change mental health stigma so have been looking at how mental health is viewed and coming up with an action plan as well as organising publicity events. They have been looking at mental health in the workplace, so speaking about it in inductions and training events so people know they have somewhere to go.

NUS signed with them in June and since then we have been looking at how we support our staff, we are encouraging student unions to do the same within their institution.” It is certainly true that one of the reasons many people will be hesitant to seek help and identify themselves as having a mental ill-health disorder is due to the fact they fear discrimination in the workplace.

Despite the huge number of students suffering from mental ill-health, less than 1 per cent have made the university aware of that fact in fear that it may hinder future employment.

In terms of getting involved with and supporting the movement on a personal level, Hannah identifies just talking to people as one of the best ways to help. “Things like living library is a really good opportunity to get involved, where people who actually experience mental health problems can talk about how it should be improved. Talking to people about mental health is a really strong resilient thing to do that should be celebrated. Just talking to people is the first part of not just breaking down stigma but also getting help. We had Naomi Bentley at the conference and she was amazing.”

On a more local level, Thomas Ron, York’s disability officer, has enthusiastically supported the campaign and encourages anyone who thinks they might be suffering from mental ill-health to use the resources York has on offer. “It’s a really important thing we have to inform, there are crazy stigmas that just aren’t true. It’s going pretty well so far, we are raising awareness.

“To fight the stigma around mental health and let people know if they are going through any issues there is help, so talk to open door, Nightline, the health centre. People are there to help and a lot of people just don’t know that and this has to change.”

One comment

  1. 22 Oct ’13 at 11:50 am

    Harold A . Maio

    Fighting the stigma
    eradicate the stigma
    the stigma surrounding mental health
    experience stigma
    mental health stigma
    mental health stigma
    stigma surrounding
    a lot of stigma
    mental health stigma
    breaking down stigma
    To fight the stigma
    You, of course, mean fighting that claim. I fight that claim, having learned from WWII and from the Women’s Movement.

    You seem resolute in directing that same prejudice. Is it part of higher education at York? If so, it is both irresponsible, and unethical. Please end your policy of subjecting students to that prejudice. It is an act of discrimination.

    Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor

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