“People with mental health problems say that the social stigma attached to mental ill health and the discrimination they experience can make their difficulties worse and make it harder to recover” - www.mentalhealth.org.uk
Today we are focusing on busting stigmas around mental health. University can be one of the best, or worst, times for a student. From the adventure of a new town or city to the stress of deadlines and feelings of isolation or loneliness. COVID-19 has changed higher education and has made it harder than ever for us to socialize and get outside, especially with the winter months rolling in the bad weather. So, what are our statistics?
“Over a third of UK students (37%) are experiencing their state of mental wellbeing changing for the worse since starting higher education.” - www.randstad.co.uk
One of the primary reasons people do not reach out for support is due to stigma based culture, from ‘Man up’, to ‘cheer up’, to ‘you’ll get over it’ this attitude trivializes the struggles of individuals across the world. This often leads to a negative impact on students, especially in relation to our studies, whether it’s a piece of work we aren’t happy with, or leaving our course altogether.
We reached out to the students on our campuses to get their input on some of the stigmas around mental health and how they campaign to bust them. Firstly, we have the Lampeter Men’s Rugby team, who in collaboration with our other Rugby Teams do a lot of work on men’s mental health through their annual Movember campaign which runs in November;
“At university, and especially in times like these, mental health safeguarding and awareness are at the forefront of every club and society for both their members, and the UWTSD community as a whole. For our members, men’s mental health is our primary focus.
Men’s mental health spans a wide array of subjects, and all of these issues are incredibly complex. Therefore, it is crucial to promote an environment where men can feel confident about having a conversation about their mental health. Everyone is different, but everybody needs and deserves to feel comfortable enough to take that first step, and talk about their issues, regardless of stigma. Whether these issues are big or small, the most important thing is that men feel confident in reaching out, and they are heard.
UWTSD Lampeter Men’s Rugby is committed to tackling the stigmas surrounding men’s mental health. Last year our Movember charity fundraiser set the bar extraordinarily high, and this year more than ever, we need to come together with the university community to help promote a safe, open, and positive environment. Together, we can help support Movember so that more and more men can be provided with the help that they deserve.“
We also reached out to our LGBTQ+ Open Space PTO Rio to share some information on the LGBTQ+ community and its experience with support and mental health:
“LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to experience low self-esteem, depression, anxiety (including social anxiety), eating problems, drugs and alcohol misuse, self-harm and suicidal feelings, as well as other mental health problems. This is because members of the LGBTQ+ community face stigma and discrimination towards their sexual orientation or gender identity that non-LGBTQ+ people do not. Things such as homophobia/transphobia, social isolation, exclusion and rejection have a large impact on LGBTQ+ individuals.
A study by Life in Scotland for LGBTQ+ Young People found:
Stonewall Scotland found:
Helpful charities for LGBTQ+ mental health:
Our disability PTO, Emily, shared her insight into the stigma around mental health in people with disabilities from her personal experience:
“Mental health and disabilities can go hand-in-hand. Mental health can deteriorate to a point where it disables you from your daily life, and disabilities can affect one’s mental health along the way. Having experienced this and the stigmas surrounding both since a young age, I have learnt many coping mechanisms and how to explain to those people with the stigmas how different reality is.
I had spine surgery to correct my scoliosis at 13, an age where appearance really mattered to me. Not only this, but at the time I took part in many dance classes, one being ballet, and the environment there concerning body image can be very toxic. With it already having an effect on me at an earlier age, finding out my spine was curved and my hips were wonky got to me. I thought I would be better after the surgery, but no. I had more issues come about if anything. I went from being a very active child who thoroughly enjoyed PE and went to multiple different dance classes throughout the week, to sitting in a chair all day every day watching TV. This sudden change in lifestyle had an impact, and it’s clear looking back how much positivity and happiness I had from all the activity. When I tried getting back into dance, I had to start at a much lower level, and my self-esteem just sank. I had to let my body heal, and to this day I still am. I have to be careful with any activity, which has caused me to be almost paranoid about anything where my spine could be affected.
This physical disability was regarded as “fixed” by most of my teachers; my PE teachers asked me weekly when I can start playing netball and running around again. I kept telling them I was healing, and it takes years, but even when I felt like I could possibly start again I didn’t want to. I was terrified to take part, but I never told them that. I have never gotten out of this properly, even when getting into fitness training. However, despite this, I do try to challenge myself. Simple things like hikes and long walks used to really hurt, but now I’m able to go for longer before needing to take a break or stop. For me, this is a huge achievement, and I am hoping to achieve more and more in the future. This is something I know I can do to help my mental health, as well as keep the negative perspectives of my disabilities away.
Many people have said to me that the surgery was nearly 10 years ago now, move on and start doing more fitness and anything fun. I’ve even heard that because I can walk upright, I’m not actually disabled. And that really got to me, it made me feel as though my feelings weren’t valid, and I was alone.
Just because my back is “fixed” doesn’t mean I am ready to act like it is. I have talked to many people of many ages who also went through this surgery, and there are many mixed reactions. One girl started surfing again at her one-year mark, and one man took three years to feel comfortable doing hydrotherapy, something that’s recommended three months after surgery. And while this helped me realise and accept that I should take recovery at my own pace, I also use it as an excuse to not progress – I have found my comfort zone.
Mental health can’t be seen. It is hidden; I can look at myself and say, “The surgeon did a fantastic job, it’s fixed and it’s been over 8 years now, just go and join the netball team”, but I cannot. A wave of feeling useless and lazy comes over me, and I have to sit myself down and tell myself that what I went through at such a young age is going to have a large impact on me, and it’s okay to take it step-by-step at my pace. But no matter how many times I do this, I will always meet someone who tells me to give it a go and it’ll all be fine. And yes, this is helpful in making me think about where I am in progress, but over time I have learnt to balance when to push myself – not to do it for others – and when to take a step back and give myself the needed time and space. With this I have also become more open with people with how I am and how everything affects me.
When I returned to college after my diagnosis (Autism, Dyspraxia, and Irlen’s Syndrome) my mental health hit a low, and it all came about from my teachers’ attitudes. The support I got was amazing, with the Head of Student Support always having my back, but nothing she could do would change how they acted with me. I remember having to explain to my Maths teacher when he asked why I “suddenly” couldn’t answer questions when being called upon and saying that I “don’t come across autistic” and he “never would have guessed”. I decided to tell him what happened most of the time, whenever I asked to go to the toilet after answering the question, it was to have a “mini-meltdown”, as I call them, and to calm down so I could attempt to sit in the rest of the class. He still didn’t quite get it, but he followed through with my request and let me decide when I was comfortable answering questions.
Learning disabilities can also lead to depression and anxiety. Research suggests that mental health problems amongst people with a learning disability is double the rate of those without (Cooper 2007; Emerson & Hatton 2007; NICE 2016). The teachers I had that year didn’t help with this. With my dyspraxia I am extremely unorganised even though I believe I am organised, and this was an ongoing issue with my history teacher. My folder was awful, and even though I had support with college who would help me with this folder, two days later it would be a mess again. So I would often deal with my teacher coming over and telling me over and over again in front of other students that I have the support, so why am I being lazy with my organisation? And she wouldn’t give me the chance to explain. I tried with it, but there were so many topics we covered, and the coursework was also a mess, I had no chance of keeping it organised to her level.
My other teacher refused to give me help. Part of my Irlen’s Syndrome is that I have tinted glasses, but I preferred reading off the correct colour paper since the glasses still made my eyes hurt slightly. He refused to print off my work because I had the glasses, and it made his job harder – even though all he had to do was request one copy on blue.
I put up a front and found coping mechanisms for the first twelve years of education, and because of this my teachers didn’t understand and didn’t seem to want to.
It made me feel pretty stupid, not going to lie. I went through a phase where I hated that I found ways to cope with the world because for that last year of college, my teachers might have been more understanding. It took me a while to realise none of this was my fault, I just had ignorant, ableist teachers. When I started university, I saw how accepting the education system is meant to be, and therefore I started setting standards for what I expect from the workplace. I don’t want to be a pushover there when I know how I should be treated, and how my disabilities affect me.
Unfortunately, there are still places where those with disabilities are not seen as ‘capable’ as those without disabilities, and so it leads to the ‘disability percentage gap’ (Dixon et al, 2018). Policies like Affirmative Action help with balancing out employment percentages for more than just those with disabilities. Despite this, 32% of respondents in the British Attitudes Survey of 2017 thought that disabled people aren’t as productive as non-disabled people. But there are things in place, and things you can do to help. The Equality Act 2010 includes those with disabilities, both mental – with cases of mental health falling under it as well – and physical, and it helps you fight and argue your case when you need it. When looking for employment, we have the choice to let the employer know at any stage if we have a disability, and if we decide to, we can let them know what our needs are and if the work environment needs any changes. We can also request Access to Work for extra support, which includes help in mental health. Campaigning and raising awareness about disabilities helps as well. There is plenty of research currently that needs funding, and charities that need support to continue helping those in need.
And remember that you need to take care of yourself first. By prioritizing your mental health and how your disability/disabilities affect you, you will help yourself get better. There is only so much of helping others someone can do when they themselves need help.
It is a hurdle getting through any mental health struggle, and it feels worse when those around you don’t understand and have stigmas surrounding how your disability works or doesn’t work. But like I’ve said, there is so much there to help us, and so much that we can do to help others once we have worked past our own blocks and helped ourselves.”
The amount of stigma around mental health is staggering and the insights we have included are just the tip of the iceberg, so what can we do?
CAMH (www.camh.ca) has a great list of ways we can tackle stigma:
Educate yourself about mental illness so you can understand if your mate comes to you for support/signposting.
It's too easy to use the name of a disorder as a joke or casual turn of phrase without meaning anything by it, but it can affect those around us!
Pass on facts and positive attitudes, challenge the myths and the stereotypes!
Treat everyone with dignity and respect
Don’t discriminate or leave out a mate if they’re having a rough time; that’s likely when they need you most!
There are several different services, and I have included some recommendations below:
Student Services in UWTSD
The university offers a free support and counselling service, email Hwb and they will put you in touch with someone!
PAPYRUS – www.papyrus.org.uk
Mind - www.mind.org.uk
No Panic - www.nopanic.org.uk
Men’s Health Forum - www.menshealthforum.org.uk
SMART Recovery UK - smartrecovery.org.uk
Cruse Bereavement care - www.cruse.org.uk
Family Lives - www.familylives.org.uk
For more information on these and many others, check out the NHS Website - www.nhs.uk
If you have any experience in busting stigma or faced it yourself, we would love to hear from you. Together, we can make a positive change. Together, we can support those who need it. Together, we can bust the stigma around mental health.
By Tammy Bowie