The Guardian, Friday 5 January 2018
“What’s a first-year undergraduate student got to feel down about? They can drive, get credit cards and have signed up to three years of parties hosted by their new social circle. Life’s a picnic.
Look again. For Generation Z, every shameful thing they’ve ever said is on the internet. If they’re freshers, they’re cut off from their loved ones for the first time, and worried they’re not like the other students on their corridor. Others still are wrestling with mental health problems they’ve been dealing with for some time. Just look at the figures: an estimated 15,000 students disclosed a mental health problem last year.
At present, the only coordinated action security can take is dialling the police when we’re worried that someone’s become a danger to themselves. This is always a last resort.
That said, if we receive reports of students showing signs of distress, everything gets dropped. When a floor of nine freshers reported a lad behaving oddly, we attended under the pretext of a plumbing check. After two teas, the lad was opening up, admitting he’d been struggling. We told him we were there to keep him from going under, and composed an email on his behalf to student support.
Students’ dorm mates can miss the signs too – and then it can be really serious. I recall one group of flatmates who thought the student along the corridor was shy until they saw the paramedics driving her to the clinical decisions unit. She’d taken an overdose; the flatmates were up all night worrying that she wouldn’t pull through.
I think we all need to be less scared of asking for help. Just as students need to feel they’ve got someone to turn to, staff should be able to ask for better training so they can understand the different types of mental health issues – and spot the warning signs.
Too often it seems people panic when confronted with mental health issues. They default to their job contract. For instance, if you work in university housing, and you hear reports of worrying behaviour – send someone to visit the student. An email invitation to an informal meeting isn’t going to work.
It’s important to remember that everyone on campus, from the deans to the recycling wardens, has survival skills students can benefit from. Many young people are just realising that adulthood isn’t like Grand Theft Auto: there isn’t always a clear yellow trail on the radar to guide you to your next mission. You might not be able to solve a serious mental health issue – that’s for the professionals – but reminding students that feeling confused or lonely doesn’t make you weak can be a helpful start.