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Oxford Student Mental Health Network: Supporting Students

What should you do if you think a student has a mental health problem? Jenny Lunnon highlights sources of help.

Something is wrong, but you're not sure what it is. A student who usually contributes a lot in seminars has been subdued for the past month. Their essays lack their usual liveliness and they have lost the spring in their step. What should you do?

The short answer is: make time to speak to them in private, listen carefully to what they say, and where appropriate encourage them to seek further help. That might mean referring them to see the college doctor, or nurse, or a counsellor, at the Counselling Service - someone who can assess the situation and advise on the best course of action. Other possible resources include confidential telephone advice lines, online self-help courses, peer support groups, books and podcasts.

The problem is that many members of staff are not aware of what assistance is available. They may feel uncertain about how to broach the subject, or what to do if a student denies they have a problem and declines their offer of help. They might, understandably, wonder whether they should become involved at all, given that they lack professional expertise in mental health.

This is where the Oxford Student Mental Health Network (OSMHN) comes in. It advises University and college staff on how to spot the early signs of student distress and take practical steps to help. Set up in 2000 as a HEFCE-funded research project, the network today brings together over 300 people from Oxford University, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford and Cherwell Valley College, and the NHS, who are all working to improve the mental health and well-being of Oxford's large student population.

Hertford college nurse Yo Davies, who represents the Nurses' Association on OSMHN's steering committee, explains: 'Many of us dealing with students in distress are working alone and the opportunity to network and learn from each other is very important. Being part of OSMHN has allowed tutors, welfare deans, chaplains, nurses, NHS staff and others to interact and share ideas and best practice.'

Students are more likely to suffer mental ill health than the general population.

OSMHN runs training courses and workshops on topics that have included bereavement, drug and alcohol misuse, and perceptions of mental health in different cultures. One that participants found especially useful was dealing with mental health problems out of hours.

Courses are open to all University and college staff - including those in administrative, domestic, and residential roles - and to students with welfare responsibilities, such as JCR and Student Union officers.

Alan Percy, Head of the University's Counselling Service and also a member of OSMHN's Steering committee, emphasises that they are not trying to train up 'amateur psychotherapists', but to help the staff gain the confidence and knowledge to offer initial assistance, encourage students to seek further support, and understand issues such as confidentiality.

Being able to pool the expertise of many people has been invaluable, he says, especially when doing joint advocacy on student-specific issues, such as the need to provide continuity of care where students are living for part of the year in Oxford and part elsewhere. Sharing information has brought to life, many useful resources such as a Japanese-speaking Samaritans helpline.

Students are more likely to suffer mental ill health than the general population. One explanation is that many are far from home and their established support network. Exam pressure of financial worries may also be factors, whilst art and humanities graduates in particular can find the years of independent study required to achieve a higher degree a rather lonely journey.

Most students will overcome their difficulties and go on to achieve academic success and fulfilment in their personal and work lives. The key is helping them to see that there is nothing to be ashamed of in admitting they have a problem, and offering appropriate, timely support before it becomes a crisis.

The University's Counselling Service offers advice and guidance to students and those supporting students, including University and college staff, health professionals, parents and other students.

For more information about OSMHN, including forthcoming events and training and how to join their mailing list,

Publication date: May 2012.

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