University Mental Health Day - Community and the irony of not belonging

March 5th is University Mental Health Day; a day run jointly by Student Minds; the UK's student mental health charity and UMHAN (University Mental Health Advisors Network).

The goal is not to have a single day for mental health, but rather two women and a man sat around a table using laptops and talkingto have a focus; a day to encourage the conversation and to make mental health a university-wide priority; something everyone embraces going forwards. With this in mind, it's perhaps fitting that the theme for university Mental Health Day this year is 'community'.

University is often equal parts exciting and frightening; it's a time of independence, experimentation and often personal reflection and reinvention; but it can also be lonely and isolating.

For many people, university marks the point in their lives when they move out of their childhood homes, leave parents and friends and find themselves in unfamiliar cities with new groups of people.

Find out How Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs) can help students with a mental health condition. Are you eligible for DSA? Use our free HE support checker to see whether you could be eligible for DSAs or other support. 

A sense of belonging 

Community, a sense of 'belonging', is one of the key elements of human existence; some have argued as important to us as a species as food, water and shelter. Belonging, in a primal sense, means having someone watching your back; a community looking out for you; a tribe to protect you, it means security. Studies have shown that a sense of belonging is also strongly associated with academic success; and it makes sense that in environments where you are comfortable and feel secure; you are less anxious, feel less vulnerable, and can therefore devote that brain energy into less survival-based pursuits. We are social learners too, learning from our interactions with others and complimenting each others skillsets, our relative strengths and weaknesses combine to create a community greater than the sum of its parts. 

Students jumpingFor Universities, it's important to generate a sense of belonging; first and foremost, they want their students to be happy, healthy and successful; a sense of belonging within the university also leads to better retention rates. The by-product of happy, successful students is a positive public perception of the University that makes it more popular and therefore attracts more (fee-paying) students. So it's not surprising that Universities strive to publicise this front-and-centre; with every website image and glossy pamphlet showing groups of students interacting together in fun environments and having the time of their lives.

But what if you don't feel like that? What if you look at the posters and think; "That's just not me, that's not how I feel"?

You're not alone.

The Unite Students insight report 2019 highlighted that; "Loneliness ... seems to be an issue for about a quarter of first year students, and this was consistent across all accommodation types including parental home."
But that's not to say you should accept this; there will always be support available, someone to talk to...just ask. Normally a Student Support Service, Disability Team or Pastoral Care team will be best suited to help you.

AbilityNet identifies Five ways technology can help improve your mental health with some adjustments.

This was one of the reasons AbilityNet developed My Study My Way; an online platform to signpost help and support available at your University; to point you to the right people. The tool is designed to provide tailored advice across a wide range of challenges you might face or worries you might experience. You do not need to have or disclose any particular disability or mental health condition in order to access the support and advice; it's for everyone.

My Study My Way logoOne of the issues we had when developing the tool was around community and belonging. In an early feedback session, a student fed back that signposting clubs and societies was all very well, but if you experienced any level of social anxiety, being told that the solution was to go out and meet people wasn't exactly helpful. Point taken, we amended the advice, but in the process of researching it, we came across an experience of another student. This student had experienced social anxiety in her first year and it had been suggested that she joined a local support group for people who experienced similar anxieties. She explained that the group would meet each week and they would sit around in silence and then they would all leave, it was not about moving things on, fixing things, being more like 'the others', it was simply about being with other people like her; they had found their community.

Are you struggling with anxiety at University? Read our Seven apps to help reduce anxiety at University blog for some easily accessible ways to help you feel less overwhelmed

You might meet lifelong friends, or you might meet friends who become memories of friends from University; a tribe you were a part of once upon a time. You might find that University is just a step that leads you to the job where you belong; it might be your first job, it might be your tenth. You might 'find yourself' at University, you might not, you might think you have and then change your mind. You might have a fantastic time, you might have a nice time, but is nice good enough?

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