CARTOON/Laura Mackenzie

Navigating the maze of mental health

Because mental health illnesses are less visible than obvious physical illnesses or injuries, they are often treated as less serious, less devastating, and less life-changing, than physical illnesses. This is a dangerous approach to take to public health. Now the tide is turning.

The treatment of mental health in this country is improving. Stigma and the discrimination faced by people with mental health illnesses are finally being tackled, and it’s at this point that I would like to commend the amazing work of OUSU’s Mind Your Head Campaign and others, in destigmatising mental health and normalising people’s experiences of illnesses that were for too long ‘swept under the rug’ and ignored.

I’m not pretending, or even proposing, that all has been solved, and stigma and discrimination have been removed from society, but the effect, beginning to tackle these issues has on the treatment of mental health is profound. Most obviously, if someone feels less ashamed of their anxiety attacks, less embarrassed about their obsessive compulsive disorder, treated with respect and dignity when dealing with their bipolar disorder, they may feel more inclined to reach out to others in an effort to come to terms with their mental health, and in some cases seek treatment for their conditions.

So, if destigmatisation is the first step in improving the treatment and support for people’s, and in particular students’, mental health, surely the second step is to ensure people actually know what services are available to them in order to address their mental health concerns. In relation to students, this is the first place where I believe too little is being done.

Too often students don’t know where to turn, or to whom to turn, in order to address their worries and concerns. Such confusion and uncertainty is not appropriate for those who aren’t suffering from a mental health illness, let alone those who are. It cannot be right that students, often at their most vulnerable, should be left to themselves to manoeuvre through the plethora of information and services available. Instead, would it not be better to help guide students to the services, signposting the services’ actual existence, and assisting them to determine the appropriate service for themselves?

Oxford University is well provided for when it comes to mental health services, whether it be by the Oxford NHS Foundation Trust, Oxfordshire Mind, or the University’s own counselling service. However, one of the main issues is that students don’t know about them or how to contact them, and get the ball rolling in relation to coming to terms with and resolving their mental health concerns or worries.

The mental health of students at Oxford is a particular priority for OUSU and increasingly, in all parts of the university, it is being taken seriously and with the gravity it deserves, but how can students be expected to receive help from professionals or specialised medical or other treatment if they do not know they are there? For example, in relation to eating disorders, how many people know of the existence of Cotswold House; run by Oxford NHS Foundation Trust, which provides specialist adult eating disorder services, that often merely requires a referral from an (Oxfordshire) GP? Not many. This is a problem, because these services can and do change lives.

As OUSU’s Health and Welfare Officer, one of my election commitments was to tackle the accessibility problems facing students in relation to mental health services. One of my responses to this is to create a mental health awareness pack, which is nearing completion, which will highlight some common mental health issues, concerns and illnesses and possibly some of their symptoms, before then providing a simplistic, concise and comprehensive guide to the services available to students and how to get in touch with those services once they’ve decided that particular service is most appropriate. I hope to have this ready by 5th week of Trinity term.

Whilst I appreciate signposting services will not solve all the problems, barriers and challenges facing students with mental health concerns, I believe this will help reduce the stress and trauma of reaching out to mental health services, and in combination with other work, in relation to for example, the haste of appointments, referrals and treatments, make a real, positive impact on students facing mental health issues or illnesses.

CARTOON/Laura Mackenzie