June 27, 2013

Nicola Byrom, founding director of Student Run Self HelpRecovery is an interesting concept. The Oxford English Dictionary defines recovery as the restoration of a person to a healthy or normal condition. In this sense we think of recovery as a process of leaving damage behind, of getting life back to normal. I struggled with an eating disorder through most of my teenage years. These are years where you work out who you are and start to think about your place in the world.

It was not easy to talk about what made me, me

When I moved to university I had recovered from the eating disorder. I was, as the term recovery defines, in a normal, healthy condition. But I was still a person who had recovered from an eating disorder. At that point in my life, most of the life that I could remember had been shaped by the eating disorder and my experiences of fighting a mental health problem.

While my peers could talk about the experiences that made them who they were, the holidays or hobbies, the parties or interests that shaped their world, it was not easy to talk about what made me, me. It did not feel socially acceptable to say my greatest achievement in life to date is being here and being well.

I did start talking to closer friends about my own experiences

But being there at university was a huge achievement for me and being there well was simply amazing and yes, I should have been incredibly proud of myself for managing to get there. Over time at university I did start talking to closer friends about my own experiences and I was amazed at what happened as I shared what I thought were very personal experiences.

My peers did not respond by treating me any differently, but started to open up about some of their own fears and concerns; friends who seemed depressed, family members who had unhealthy eating patterns and their own personal anxieties. It felt that all these thoughts and stories had always been there for them and they simply need someone to lead the way and say, I’m okay talking about mental health.

I became concerned about the problems facing students

For me, starting to talk about my own life experiences was very liberating; I began to realise that I could tell people about what made me, me. This however started a conversation about student mental health that I am still having 6 years later. The more I managed to get my peers talking about mental health, the more concerned I became about the huge problems facing students with current mental health problems.

I found the transition to university difficult; among an entirely new crowd of people, in a completely new city, I could have been anyone and yet all the wishing in the world would not have let me be anyone other than me, and part of who I was then and will always be, is an individual who has recovered from an eating disorder. In that gap where no one knew my past, my experiences of a mental health problem left me feeling very isolated. This was difficult, but nowhere near as difficult as the isolation felt by the thousands of young people who arrive at university with mental health problems.

SRSH supports students to run peer support groups

Following the conversations I first started having as an undergraduate student, I have worked with an ever increasing number of young people who want to see a change in attitudes to student mental health. I founded a charity, Student Run Self Help.

SRSH supports students to run peer support groups, enabling open conversation about mental health problems. This work is really only a tiny drop in the ocean, just providing a life raft for students who want to start talking today. But, through running this charity I have heard so many student stories and the picture doesn’t seem pretty; away from old friends and family, under incredible pressure to succeed and achieve, facing large financial burdens and demands to ‘fit in,’ students need far more support than is currently available.

We want to understand the challenges facing student mental health

When the problem seems so enormous, it is hard to know where to start. Most working in the field of student mental health feel overwhelmed by the size of the problem. Many rightly ask what support should be provided and who should be providing it. SRSH is currently working with Mental Wealth UK to run a project called Grand Challenges in Student Mental Health. Over the next 6 months, this project will, through a series of questionnaires that can be completed by students, university staff and mental health professionals, pin point a set of central challenges facing student mental health.

This will provide a framework to think about where changes need to be made in mental health support provision for students and what the most effective strategies might be. If you would like to take part in this project visit www.srsh.co.uk/grandchallenges. The first stage of this project closes on the 31st of June.

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