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University of Nottingham's Mental Health Expert Paul Crawford Gives Advice to New Students

14 September 21 words: Paul Crawford

Paul Crawford is a mental health campaigner and professor of Health Humanities at the University of Nottingham, a discipline which explores how the arts and humanities can inform public health. He talks us through the challenges we’re likely to encounter at university and gives some tips on how to handle them...

When we bring up challenges to mental health we immediately think about serious mental disorders, but there’s more to it than that. Going to university is a transition into a more independent world. You’re starting to set out on what is viewed as an important and pivotal moment in your life. You’re starting to take those first steps into life away from your parents in quite possibly a new location in the country or the world. This is why the first few weeks of university are pretty overwhelming, both from a joyful and exciting point of view, through to all the mechanics of life and the different tasks and demands on you. For some, this may provoke depression and anxiety. 

Feelings of loneliness can be strong when you move to a new place where you don’t know many people. Although you’ll likely meet and make new friends, you might find yourself alone a lot more to start with. You’re also trying to get a sense of who you are within this very dynamic environment. For the first time you’re set free to experience an unfolding relational life that’s probably bigger and more diverse than what you’ve experienced before. There are other social ‘tests’ at this time as well, such as dealing with finances etc. Having that sole responsibility for the first time can be quite scary, particularly if you can’t rely on a bank of Mum or Dad. A lot of students will share this kind of challenge of day-to-day practical survival, so valuing each other’s ideas and solutions about how to manage is really important. 

University is a place of judgement as well. You’re moving through one of society’s structures for deciding who goes where with what particular skills. It can be an intense setting. You become more visible to yourself as a performing being who needs to do well, amplified by the metrics and feedback of the university grading system, and that can make things quite pressured for young people. That’s where perfectionism comes in. Depending on your background, your family experiences and the way you’ve been educated previously, your expectations of yourself will differ. Anything we can do to allow for and accept failing as learning, to allow for being sufficient as opposed to 100 percent perfect, is really important. Sometimes being good enough is good enough!

It’s a big challenge, but it’s also a challenge that with the right encouragement and support becomes a wonderful opportunity

In the campaign I led in collaboration with Aardman, ‘What’s up with Everyone?’, we tried to get more upstream about dealing with life’s challenges rather than particular mental health disorders. It’s normal for a person’s mind to struggle with some of the challenges that life puts before them. It’s about finding strategies: for balancing independence with dependence, for coping with social media so you can use it and not be abused by it, for calibrating perfectionism to the point it’s bearable for yourself and others, striking the right balance about being competitive, and for countering loneliness and isolation. 

There’s a biting point towards the start of university life where so many things come together that are potentially wonderful as well as quite daunting. It’s a big challenge, but it’s also a challenge that with the right encouragement and support becomes a wonderful opportunity. 

Being young is a time when you’re looking for new opportunities and horizons. The pandemic put a lot of things on hold or brought a great deal of uncertainty about the future. Depression and anxiety rose among young people and I’m not surprised. During lockdown my son and I wrote Cabin Fever: Surviving Lockdown in the Coronavirus Pandemic, in part to deal with our own isolation and find purpose. Hopefully, your experience of university life will not be so severely disrupted as we all find ways to manage through the pandemic. But if you do feel distressed by the pandemic and its effects, and how this is impacting on your university life, do talk to someone you trust about your feelings. 

We need to keep challenging the stigma and start allowing for vulnerability. Students should realise just how life changing it can be when you reach out and say ‘I am not coping’. I think they'll be nicely surprised by the level of support they get within the university. 

In terms of advice, I would always start with the word compassion. Often the focus is on compassion for others but I would say to students, think about being compassionate to yourself as a starting point. Be kind and gentle to yourself; we’re often our own biggest critic.

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