Mental wellbeing – how can the university help?
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, Kimberley Georgiou, Wellbeing Coordinator in Operations and Support explains what the University of Brighton does to boost student wellbeing – and how easy it is to seek help if needed.
Helpful links to some of the services mentioned by Kimberley can be found below, as can a transcript of the podcast.
Self Help Resources, SSGT’S, Student Advice and their blog, Mood Boost, Wellbeing Works, Volunteering, Momentum, Disability and Dyslexia Team, Careers Service, Coaching, Sport Brighton, Student Union, Counselling, Mind’s Five Ways to Wellbeing
What’s your background? How have you arrived at this point?
My background is in social work, so I worked in front line and statutory social work for quite some time and most recently I’ve come from what we called an assessment and treatment service, so that’s a frontline mental health service within Sussex.
We’re speaking in Mental Health Awareness Week – students and mental health is a topic which is often quite extensively covered in the mainstream media, often in quite a negative kind of way. Are there are general kind of trends which tend to be common issues?
I think that our students, the student demographic, are just a reflection of society as a whole really. I think the common trends here reflect the common trends across the nation. But I guess we could see more specific ones in terms of maybe root cause or stressors.
In students we’re going to see themes coming to light across the academic timetables, so around exam stress. When students first come to us, there are things which affect them which would be unique from the rest of the population, I guess. So things like leaving your home, leaving your friends and your family and everyone that you know – that’s quite a big thing to do. Quite a scary thing for lots of people. The majority of our students it’ll be the first time that they’ve done that. So yeah, re-acclimatizing to a new environment, making new friends. I think isolation is something that we see quite a lot, and I think it’s probably something which isn’t spoken about very much amongst students. I think feeling lonely or feeling isolated, feeling like you haven’t made friends is perhaps not something that students necessarily feel comfortable talking about, but it is certainly an issue and it might be reassuring for students to know that they’re not the only one that hasn’t necessarily made a friend during Freshers’ Week. And again, if you’ve missed the boat in the first year, this isn’t just something we see in the first year. So, this comes up throughout student studies that perhaps they haven’t quite felt that they fit in, or they haven’t quite made the connections with people that they would like, and we know that connecting with other humans in any capacity is absolutely essential for their wellbeing.
Let’s focus on that then because I guess for many undergraduates coming here, they’re very young and it’ll be the first time that they would be away from home and it can be a massive shock to the system, so what does the University offer for people that may be feeling a bit isolated?
We’ve got a huge amount of support here. I’m really, really proud to work here and work for a university that takes wellbeing and student health so seriously.
I guess the most important thing when you first arrive, to know about, is your SSGT. So there’s an SSGT placed in every academic school throughout the university and they are your go-to person for everything. They all have their own specific office hours, really accessible through the website, or if you ask anyone in your school, everyone in your school will know who your SSGT is. You can go and see them if you’re feeling a little bit down, if you’re a little bit confused about your timetable, whatever it is that is maybe a little bit difficult when you first get here, or just for information advice, you know, where do I go if I want to talk to someone about this, where do I go if I want to see this – just pop in, the SSGTs, they’re all lovely, really down to earth, really approachable and they are your one stop shop for finding out about everything.
From there, would the SSGT almost refer to somewhere else to go if they need to find more specialist care?
Yeah absolutely – signposting – so they’re the front door. They’re the person you’re going to know and you’re going to recognise, but they’ll absolutely tell you where to go more specifically because they’re not going to do all of the work themselves, they’re not going to be able to support you with every issue that you come with – but they’re really knowledgeable about local sport internally and externally.
Actually really important talking about the SSGTs and when students first arrive, I mean not necessarily when they first arrive but a good place to go would be to have a look at our online resources, so we know it can be really difficult to approach either someone you don’t know or someone you know, if you are feeling a little bit different, a little bit down, a little bit stressed, sad, whatever it might be. So, if you take a look on the website, we’ve got a host of self-help resources which really are quite useful – self-help is not like the books in the 70s anymore. It’s really useful evidence based materials which are really accessible and feedback is that people find them really useful.
Students will often talk about the pressures around their university education. What do you think that comes down to? I mean does it come through grades, does that increase the burden on some students do you think?
I think there’s a variety of reasons why individual students will feel under a lot of pressure. I think the things that you’ve mentioned are valid. I think it depends upon the student’s own drive and their own kind of standards for themselves. Some students have incredibly high standards for themselves, a bit unrelenting at times, and they can they can give themselves additional pressure which is external from the university.
Certain students give themselves additional deadlines even before their formal ones. I think a lot more people are coming to university now and we’re seeing a wider variety of people coming to university. Sometimes we’re seeing lots of students who are the first people in their family to come to university and so they have no prior experience of what higher education looks like, or the expectation of them, or the importance of kind of a holistic approach to education, I guess – not just about your exam results, your final grades but the entire experience.
I guess a university can be a bit of a microcosm of society – can situations be magnified for students because they’re in such a small societal space?
Yeah I think that is a possibility and I think that would be a possibility at any university. Given the intensity of the university experience and life maybe living on campus, I think things can be magnified in the same way that anything feels incredibly important at the time and in hindsight or reflection it might feel less so. I think again Brighton’s really, really brilliant at inclusivity. It’s one of our core values and we’re really good at inviting and supporting students who might otherwise not have come to university.
Clearly the demand can also be tricky to deal with sometimes because we’re seeing statistics that show that students are looking for more support. At which point is it recommended that a student who may be struggling goes to their GP, and also how easy and how crucial is it that when a student attends university here, where they’re maybe not from the local area, that they do register with a GP when they get here?
Absolutely fundamental. Please register with your local GP. It’s so easy to do. We have a GP on two of our campuses – our Eastbourne campus and also our Moulsecoomb campus. If you don’t want to register here at the uni, that’s absolutely fine. There is an abundance of GPs locally. It’s so quick to do – really, really easy and it is absolutely fundamental for you getting any support here. Almost all avenues of support will have a prerequisite that you’ve registered locally with the GP, so that two minute job within your first week here will save you so much time and effort a little bit down the line.
The idea of wellbeing in general – it’s not just a concept which is for I guess crisis management. It covers quite a broad range doesn’t it. So it’s just about being more happy in yourself, I guess – and that could be feeling supported in your faith, maybe joining network groups, it could financial wellbeing, being a bit more active. What does the university do and what can students find out to sort of help themselves to feel a bit more supported in that way?
I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head there. We’re not talking about crisis management and responding to crisis, although at times throughout the whole of the UK that will happen.
I think our approach is exactly what you’ve just described and that’s a proactive approach. So I can talk about the support systems that we’ve got here at the uni and then also talk more generally about people’s wellbeing and what they can do, because wellbeing is going to be different to everybody and what I do to keep myself well it’s going to be presumably different to what you do.
So here at the uni, we have got formalised support within student operations and support and there there’s a range of wonderful teams where you can get specific information advice and support around quite student related issues. So, we’ve got a career service for anyone who’s interested in looking at talking about exploring their career options and within that as well we’ve got quite specific volunteering service for anyone who is interested in finding out more about volunteering. These things might not necessarily seem like they’re related to wellbeing but when we look at just for example at the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ from the NHS, which we’d highly recommend everyone takes a look at, connecting and being creative and giving back to your society is very well evidenced to improve all of our wellbeing. So they’re really good services to check in with.
We have specific workshops that run throughout the academic year based around wellbeing and specific issues for students. So, for example procrastination – something a lot of students struggle with, or low mood perhaps, and they’re all advertised on the website, so students should look out for them – they’re absolutely free to attend and we have them across the campuses.
We’ve also got student advice, which is our one stop shop for all financial money issues. It comes up a lot with students, whether you’re really, really good with your money, whether you’d want to find out how to be a little bit better with your money, they’ve got an abundance of advice and support and they’ve got a really active blog page as well.
We’ve got a really great accommodation team, so our accommodation team here can help you understand about your tendencies, understand about finding properties, understand about maintaining your properties. Anything from more legal advice around your rights and things, to maybe more practical advice about managing relationships within shared houses.
We’ve also got a really, really great team for anyone who’s living in halls, so for predominantly first year students, but if you are in halls with our residential life team, they’re a specific team who are there to support you when you’re in halls with all of your emotional wellbeing needs. If you don’t know who your residential adviser is, ask somebody. I’m hoping you do all know but if you don’t, tap into them – it’s a really, really great resource.
We also have a counselling service here. Most people know the word counselling, seem to understand what that means. But yes, we have that wonderful service, it’s been going for many, many, many moons now.
We’ve also got peer-to-peer support, so there is just an abundance and ever growing body of evidence that peer-to-peer support is not only what students want, but brings really, really good results. So peer-to-peer is being supported by someone either who has lived experience or is in a similar situation to yourself. So for our students, it would usually be led by another student.
So if there is a student listening to this who feels like they can help and they’d like to be part of that, what should they do to get involved?
So you can contact any of your student service centres. There’s one on every single campus, you can do that even by calling us or just popping in and expressing your interest. So, in particular, it would be really helpful if you mentioned the mood boost programme, then we can link it, you can have a look and we can give you loads more information on that, it’s an absolutely fantastic opportunity which comes with training and support – get in touch.
How important is it that staff and students across the university know about how they can be supporting each other?
I think it’s really important and I think what we’re looking at really is a whole university approach to wellbeing and mental health because I think gone are the days where it’s just the responsibility of either one person or one department, again, the same as it is nationally, everyone needs to be there for each other. And if you look at any sort of national campaigns around wellbeing and mental health it’s all about the communities coming together and providing whatever it is they can. So if you’re a doctor, you’re going to give a very specific, specialist kind of support. And if you’re a neighbour, you’re going to give a different sort of support – but there’s there’s no real hierarchy on the value of that support. So I would suggest to all of our staff and all our students to be looking out for one another and that isn’t a specialist skill – that really is being human. That is about not looking at someone clinically or looking to diagnose anyone or to provide treatment, that is literally about looking for any changes in behaviour, looking for emotions that perhaps aren’t usually there or are difficult, if someone looks upset, if someone’s a little bit more quiet or just any change in behaviour, and about having normal, human conversations with people – asking people if they’re alright! Asking people how their day is, starting a conversation in any way to connect with someone and get them talking so they feel less alone in the same way when anyone’s ever had an upset and experience whether that’s missing your bus and getting caught in the rain, it’s really comforting if someone just says ‘Are you okay?’.
Regarding campaigns like this one, Mental Health Awareness Week, how important do you think they are? And how big an impact can they have on people?
I think they’re extremely important and until we reach a point where we’re discussing or viewing mental health in the same way that we are physical health, I think we need to this kind of exposure and until the stigmatisation – which is changing and absolutely is changing for the better – but until that is eradicated, we need to be getting the message out there. We need to be getting as many people as possible hearing and talking about this and normalising talking about this, normalising saying ‘I don’t feel alright, I don’t feel okay’. Not necessarily needing to pathologise that – you know, it’s okay to not be okay.
At the end of each podcast we ask some questions away from work. I’ll ask one extra one to you because it may be relevant in the context of mental health in general, because I think we can all answer this one – If you could to give advice to your younger self, what would that be?
I would tell my younger self to be more active. So I’m an incredibly active person now. And I wasn’t as a teenager. Especially at university, I think I really missed out on some opportunities. So, I started sport much later on in life. I wasn’t interested in sport, or didn’t think I was interested in sport as a teenager at university, I’d never been sporty. I think I was probably quite insecure about my abilities, but I think I really missed out on a great opportunity to make some excellent social connections and really improve my wellbeing through physical health. But not necessarily through sports though – it would have been sport for me, but any kind of activity – just get moving a little bit more, I would have liked my younger self to be a little bit more active – and to have not smoked cigarettes.
Good advice. We ask four questions away from work on each podcast – the first one – can you pick a favourite place in Sussex?
Yes. Brighton’s my favourite place in Sussex. So, I moved here for university many moons ago and I never left because I love it. It meets all of my needs.
What are you currently reading, watching and/or listening to?
I don’t have a TV, so I’m not watching anything! I’m reading Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials trilogy. I’m late to the party, but I’m glad to be there!
Describe your perfect weekend…
It would be really busy. So, at some point over the weekend I would have to take my dog out somewhere beautiful in Sussex. I love the Downs. So, long walk with the dog and I like to do lots of cultural things, so it would involve a gig, seeing friends and if I was seeing friends at the moment, my new obsession at the moment is board games.
Finally, if you could invite three people to dinner, past or present, who would they be and why?
David Bowie. He could play the music and I would enjoy that.
I think I would invite my dog, because they’re better than most people!
And the third person would be Angela Carter, because she could tell us some really great stories.