Supporting Friends in University: A World Mental Health Day Perspective
It starts small, undisruptive, almost quietly. “Let’s just miss this lecture, I am really not feeling like it today”.
Then the invitation to grab a coffee is politely declined. That’s OK – not everyone’s free all of the time. A few weeks go by and some parties and lectures are missed. “They must be busy” – says another friend – “They’ll start showing up again when it quiets down”.
One day you go and knock on their room door. They don’t reply. Or maybe they do, and their hair is a bit messy, and their clothes are a bit scruffy, and the bed looks unmade. They confirm your friend’s suspicion: “Sorry, just been busy mate, will see you at uni, yeah? Thanks for checking.” You go away. You don’t see them in lectures and like.. ever, anymore. They’re not really active in the group chat. Your other friends say, “Look, you can’t make people take part in things. If they don’t wanna be a friend just leave them”. It doesn’t quite sit right with you, and you keep telling yourself you should go and check on them, but as the deadlines get busier and exam season approaches, the days just roll and roll and then it’s Christmas holidays and end-of-term and at the start of the second term you finally overhear some gossip – the bubbly, fun friend you made during Freshers has dropped out. “They couldn’t handle uni pressure, it’s not for everyone.” someone says.
Is it really not for everyone? Could you have helped make a difference?
Student mental health is often written off as just a sub-topic of a wider discussion, relevant only to those within its natural target. But for university students, the challenges and pressures of academic life can take a toll on everyday life, but more crucially – they can impact the rest of that person’s life.
World Mental Health Day, celebrated annually on October 10th, serves as a reminder of the importance of mental well-being, and in the below post we will discuss how everyone can make a difference, even with something simple, such as supporting your friends when they’re struggling with mental health at uni.
The Importance of Friends on Mental Health
We are social animals, theorised Aristotle and well, that theory does seem to be correct, even in the context of 2000 years later (just think about the popularity of social media!).
Though people can be more or less extroverted or introverted, the friendship connection plays a pivotal role in our mental health. Friends provide us with emotional support, companionship, understanding, and compassion.
Especially for young people and students, who are facing a period of many grand changes in their lives, friends can be a lifeline when it comes to alleviating stress, loneliness, and, of course, a sense of belonging in an environment, that is otherwise completely new and foreign.
On World Mental Health Day, but also throughout the entire year, remember that being there for your friends, even if you only met them a week ago, can really make a difference in their well-being and mental health.
How to Support Your Student Friends and What to Say
It can naturally be quite intimidating when another human being requires your support. You might feel like you’re not “trained” enough to offer appropriate support. Or like you might say “the wrong thing”. Or what if you don’t have an answer or solution?
Well, let us reassure you – there are no wrong and right answers. It’s not about finding an answer or solution. It’s about listening, being there, being a friend.
Here are some tips on how you can support your friends:
- Be an Active Listener: Giving your full attention is extremely important, and the main point, really. This is how you show empathy, and encourage your friend to express their thoughts, feelings, and struggles.
- Be Persistent in Checking In: Firstly, making an effort to check in and be there for your friends at any point is what will encourage them to reach out, if they’re struggling. But if you notice that they might not be as responsive as they were, don’t just give up. You can, of course, give them some time but also don’t completely cut them out. A simple call, a message, or even a funny meme can be a subtle reminder you’re still there and open to talk.
- Offer Actionable Help: Sometimes, when people struggle they can postpone and neglect tasks, resulting in even more stress and anxiety. Although being there to listen is always a great help, you can take it one step further by offering support with assignments, sharing your notes or even copying them for your friend, or running errands such as doing a weekly shop when they’re not feeling up to it.
- Spend Some Time Learning About Mental Health: Use your campus library, or connect with your Student Union services to access resources and literature on the topic of mental health. Sure, you do read a lot in uni already, but learning more about mental health can really help you make a difference in someone’s life.
- Remain Respectful of Your Friend’s Boundaries: If a friend is clearly indicating they don’t want to receive help or talk then that’s okay as well. Give them a few days and gently ask about their feelings and thoughts later. Sometimes a simple gesture of making them some cookies or bringing a potted plant could mean more than words and open them up to a later conversation.
- There’s No Stigma for Professional Help: For some of us, it might feel like we’re being too intrusive by suggesting professional help. Remember, your friendship is there for support but if your friend is really struggling it’s better for them to speak to a trained professional. You can always suggest help by doing the research for them, calling around, or driving them to and from appointments.
- Never Dismiss What You’re Being Told: If your friend is sharing their feelings and thoughts don’t ever dismiss them or minimise them. Remember, everyone’s experiences and pain are unique to them and something we can never fully understand. Acknowledge their emotions and validate their experiences instead.
- Don’t Just Pretend All is Fine: It is okay to express your genuine concern for your friend’s well-being. This could actually help them validate how they’re feeling. It is also showing that you’re genuinely caring and listening, and being an honest friend.
- Create Excitement: Try to plan and encourage your friend to engage in activities that can serve as healthy distractions, like a walk around the local zoo, a casual movie night with snacks, or a trip to a picturesque nearby location. Do not, under any circumstances, suggest activities involving alcohol or other addictive substances as a distraction.
- Respect Their Privacy: What your friend shares with you is meant only for your ears. Respect their confidentiality and do not share it with other people, even if they’re also “part of the friend group”. However, if you believe your friend to be in immediate danger you should contact professional services.
So, what do you say to a fellow student friend who is struggling with mental health?
Just be gentle, be considerate, don’t promise solutions, and be honest:
- “I’m here for you. You don’t have to go through this alone, that’s what friends are for.”
- “Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself, it’s okay to not be okay sometimes. Facing challenges is normal and your reaction is natural.”
- “I’m here to listen. Talk to me about what you’re going through.”
- “I can understand you’re struggling. Have you considered seeking help from a counselor or therapist? I can help with that if it feels like too much effort.”
- “Above all, your well-being matters, and I care about you. I am here for you.”
Should I Encourage My Friend to Take a Day Off Uni for Mental Health?
That’s a great idea, and absolutely fine. Taking a day off for mental health is both acceptable and essential, and universities are increasingly recognising the importance of mental health breaks.
If you think your friend could benefit from a break, encourage them to discuss it with their professors or academic advisors. You can even start the conversation on their behalf if they’re not feeling up to it.
How Can the University Support Mental Health?
If you want to support your university friends through their mental health struggles, you might have already wondered what, if any, support is available for them from the university.
In the UK university institutions carry a responsibility to prioritise student mental health.
- Staff Training: All members of staff should be trained to support and identify if there are students in need of mental health support. You can ask your Student Union for further information on the details of the training provided.
- Accessible Counselling: Mental health services on campus are usually widely promoted and there should be information materials available both online and in your Student Services. You can also always ask your course leader if you or a friend require support.
- Promoting Awareness: Many universities will have mental health awareness campaigns, events, and workshops. Some of them will be centered around important dates such as World Mental Health Day, but some might also be around stressful periods of the year (such as exam week, reading week, etc).
- Flexibility for Students: Some universities offer options to adjust timetables, submission deadlines, and attendance requirements to support mental health struggles. Don’t be hesitant to speak to your course leader or academic supervisor about it.
- On-Campus Safe Space: You might be able to find on-campus mental health hubs or counselor services you can request and/or book if you require to speak to someone confidentially during the day.
World Mental Health Day 2023
As a student, World Mental Health Day is an important day to add to your calendar. In 2023 the theme is “Mental health is a universal human right”.
Supporting World Mental Health Day starts with awareness and action. One great way to take part is to share your own experience, as this normalises it and encourages others to be open about their own struggles as well. However, it is completely okay to not want to share personal stories, so even your contribution and thoughts on the topic are equally welcome.
Educating yourself is another great and necessary way to embrace World Mental Health Day this October. Take some time this month to read on other people’s thoughts and experiences, and remember that everyone’s opinion is valid, and every experience is highly personal. Additionally, read more on the topic of mental health, and the challenges faced by individuals. Exploring your local bookshop’s section on Psychology and Mental Health is a great place to start. As always, we encourage you to stay curious and attend events and activities organised by your university or community as well as use your social media platforms to share mental health resources, stories, and support helplines.
Start the chat yourself – a casual open discussion about mental health with friends and peers can really help reduce stigma, and be an indirect way to encourage someone in the room who might be struggling.
Last but not least, there are charities that could really benefit from your support. Here at Homes for Students, we are proud to support Student Minds in their quest to raise awareness of mental health amongst students.
- Student Minds – the student mental health charity.
- Mind, the independent mental health charity in the UK
- The NHS guide to student mental health support
- The Headspace app can get you started on meditation and mindfulness.
- Student Space, led by Student Minds offers support to help students get through the struggles of university life no matter if it’s your mental health, your studies, money, relationships, or any other challenges.
How you choose to support your friends at university when they’re struggling with mental health will largely depend on the individual situation, but remember – just your presence already makes a significant difference.
And by taking an active and vocal part in Student Mental Health Day 2023 you can help keep the conversation going, and ensure mental health remains a priority in every aspect of life, including higher education.