The assumption that students are living the “best years of their lives” is far from the truth. Not only are students typically at an age of high risk for developing mental health difficulties, but they have demonstrably lower levels of wellbeing than their non-student peers.
As university staff, you can play a crucial role in the welfare support provided on campus by being familiar with some of the more common mental health difficulties. By being alert to, normalising and responding to signs of mental distress, you can make them part of the conversations to be had at university, and to reassure and signpost to further help.
Loneliness is surprisingly common in the student population and could be caused by language barriers, social phobia, physical barriers or Asperger’s syndrome.
>> Discreetly engaging the student in discussion at the end of a class or lecture may reveal clues as to the cause of the isolation, which could lead to signposting for support.
Changes in eating behaviours associated with other warning signs such as weight loss, or excessive exercise, can be indicative of an eating disorder.
>> One cannot tell if a student has an eating disorder by looking at them, but if other signs are present then early intervention is much more likely to lead to better outcomes.
Tiredness or an inability to concentrate
These can be symptoms of depression. Insomnia, loss of appetite, poor motivation, loss of enjoyment, mood swings and irritability are all common.
>> Being asked about their issues can be a key turning point in students’ mental wellbeing, as they are encouraged to seek professional support from health and welfare services.
High energy and disinhibited behaviours
Some students will develop feelings of excessive happiness, euphoria, irritability, high energy and disinhibited behaviours, which can be indicative of ‘hypomania’ or ‘mania’.
>> Any loss of insight should prompt an urgent medical assessment.
Expressing hallucinations or delusions
These are both symptoms of psychosis and are often coexistent with other symptoms such as isolation, or paranoia.
>> An urgent assessment by a medical professional is the first step, unless they appear to be in immediate danger, in which case emergency services should be called.
This is an edited extract from Student Mental Health and Wellbeing in Higher Education: A Practical Guide.