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In My View: Dr Jon Sharp talks about mental health

To mark University Mental Health Day on Thursday 1 March, Dr Jon Sharp, Director of Student Services, talks about how UEA’s approach to mental health is adapting to changing student needs.

“Awareness of the mental health issues that some students face is increasing and the stigma that’s long been associated with such conditions is, thankfully, disappearing. While these are positive changes, they do also bring a new set of challenges for university wellbeing services.

“Our responsibility as a university is to promote and protect the mental health of our students, but we are not equipped to provide medical treatment to students with serious mental illnesses. So recognising more serious or long-term conditions and ensuring that we refer students for the treatment they need is a key part of our role. We are committed to continuing to support them if they’re well enough to remain on campus and to support them in accessing the expert care they need.

“As part of that support, we’re building closer relationships with the NHS and other organisations to help ensure that they understand students’ particular needs and have good levels of provision for the conditions that most affect them, such as eating disorders.

Emotional wellbeing

“We work hard to promote an understanding that mental health and emotional wellbeing are very broad and overlapping concepts. Many of the students that we support are experiencing challenging circumstances that negatively impact their emotional wellbeing and state of mind, but they are often not suffering from a diagnosable mental health condition. Helping students to understand the broad spectrum of mental health emotional wellbeing plays an important role in building resilience.

“The journey from enjoying good mental wellbeing to becoming unwell is a long one, so we aim to equip students to be more resilient and to develop coping strategies. The key is to recognise that, for example, feeling anxious is not the same as having an anxiety disorder.

“Most of us feel anxious when faced with an important deadline or exam, but in most cases this doesn’t mean that we are suffering from an ‘anxiety disorder’. Large numbers of students who we support will not have a medically diagnosable mental health condition but their needs are valid and important: we can help when issues and events interrupt their lives and affect their wellbeing or ability to study.

“Over-medicalising is not the answer, but learning how to combat feeling anxious will provide a solution. We can do this in a number of ways, such as targeted advice, online resources, group sessions, one-to-one counselling or other talk therapy interventions.

“Among the population in general, there’s a significant and growing proportion of people who are referring themselves for mental health support and, as a result, more are being treated. This could look like a crisis, but much is due to the disappearing stigma around mental health, meaning more people are willing to come forward to seek help – so it’s important universities ensure that each individual is treated appropriately for a wide range of conditions.

Waiting times

“The time it takes to begin receiving that care is equally crucial – and receives a lot of attention. Here at UEA, students are able to refer themselves online and will receive either an invitation for a triage appointment to better understand their needs or will be immediately routed through to the appropriate team for support. Our services can support students with a range of issues, including emotional and psychological wellbeing, harassment and sexual or relationship violence, and we are also trialling same-day appointments with our Wellbeing team.

“An issue with many of the figures we see published, whether about UEA’s waiting times or any others, is that in many cases apples are being compared with oranges. They could show the length of time until a first contact, a needs assessment, a triage appointment, or until the required intervention begins, when it ends, or something else entirely. Each of these measurements is important and, at UEA, we have recently reintroduced a programme of Management Information reporting in this area and will be recording them all, including the number of students on our waiting lists, to ensure that we’re hitting our targets.

“One crucial partnership in ensuring that we continue to deliver the best possible level of service is with the Students’ Union. We’ve developed our Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy in conjunction with them and collaborate on a number of joint initiatives, such as the Alcohol Impact Project and Changing the Culture, which promotes zero tolerance of sexual violence, harassment and hate crimes, and we support them in their activities, such as the provision of a space on campus for Nightline.

“The key message I want to get across for University Mental Health Day, is that we’re here to help. It takes many people a long time to pluck up the courage to seek assistance, and Student Support can and will provide it, either here on campus or by referral to specialists. We also encourage a ‘whole university’ approach, fostering an environment where mental wellbeing is embedded into the curriculum, giving students the best chance of success, both in their education and personal lives.”