Mental health and university… recently I feel like I’m discussing this problem every single day. As a student representative I communicate this issue to colleagues, staff members, university support systems, external panels etc. I also wrote about mental and PhD – even if you’re not a PhD student, have a read, it might apply to you as well.
However, not everyone is talking about it. Some aren’t aware that this issue is important, some don’t care and many just are afraid or don’t know how to offer support to someone who might struggle. Tomorrow is a great opportunity to give it a try – Time to Talk Day 2018. It was initiated by Time to Change, a group of people who want to fight the mental health stigma. And on 1 February 2018 we’re especially encouraged to… talk. Just talk. But how?
Imagine that you are worried about someone around you. Maybe your friend started to avoid social situations? Maybe your classmate stopped attending classes? Maybe your sister doesn’t smile anymore? Or your brother smiles too much? Maybe the boy who sits in the last row and whose name you don’t even remember lost a lot of weight? These are all warning signs that shouldn’t been ignored.
You might think that it’s none of your business. That if your approach this person, she or he will just ask you to leave them alone. That’s certainly a possibility and you must be prepered for that. However, it IS your business. Surprisingly many people see these warning signs but decide to ignore them completely. Until someone finally reacts – or it’s too late.
Ok, but what exactly should you do?
First, make sure you’re alone with this person. Don’t start talking about difficult issues when there are other people around – it might be too embarassing. If you don’t know the person, just find some excuse to stay alone with them for a moment; this shouldn’t be too difficult, especially if you study together.
When you’re both in a comfortable, quiet place, you might say something like: “Recently I’ve noticed that… and this worries me a bit. Of course I might be wrong and everything is ok, but I just wanted to make sure. I’m here for you in case you’d like to talk at some point.”
And that’s it. If they don’t want to talk, accept it. If they say you’re wrong, that everything’s ok, don’t push them. In case you’re still worried, mention it to your personal tutor or a person responsible for student welfare in your department.
However, if they decide to open up, listen. It’s ok not to understand, mental illnesses aren’t easy to grasp – and nobody expects you to. Feel free to ask questions, but respect their privacy. If they don’t want to answer, then don’t pressure then. Also don’t feel that you need to “solve the problem”. It’s not your job! The most important thing is that the issue was acknowledged, they feel there’s someone they can talk to, but now it’s their turn – they need to reach out for professional help.
You won’t save the world. You probably won’t even save this particular person (if there’s really something wrong, not everyone needs to be “saved”, please remember that!). However, you might really change their life.
All sounds cheesy and unrealistic? Well, it happened to me. A long time ago I struggled myself and someone who I barely knew came and asked if everything was ok. I laughed their question off (so, again, be prepared that this might happen – it’s not easy to admit that you have a problem), but they made me think. In the end I reached out for help, which saved my life.
It’s time to talk, isn’t it?