How to talk about mental health at university or school

As a student, when you're ill, you need support. With physical health, you normally get what you need. But it doesn't always work for mental health. Here's how to have a conversation about your mental wellbeing and get support.

Studying while ill is a real challenge.

Whether you've got a sports injury or a mental health problem; what you need when ill is to be able to tell someone about your illness and get the support you need.

With physical illness, this can usually be done. You talk about what is wrong with you and you usually get the support you need.

For people who have  a mental health challenge, the outcome is far less positive. With mental health:

  • pupils feel unable to access the support they need for mental health

  • more students are dropping out of university in their first year, due to mental health, than ever before

  • yet around a third of us will have a mental health challenge at some point in life

  • more working days are lost to mental health than anything else. 

  • it's not just bad for the individual either - teachers and tutors see lost productivity, absence, more complaints and less engaged staff or students.

This is wrong on every level.  And for everyone.  And we need to put it right.

Let's first look at why it goes wrong, then we can see what we can do about it.

There are two sides to a conversation about mental health - the person with the mental health challenge, and the person they need support from - a teacher, university tutor, friend or fellow student. Let's have a look at this from the perspective of the person listening.

Picture of two confused bosses

Think about a conversation about physical health. When we are ill we generally talk about:

#1 - Label: what's wrong with us ("I have . . . the flu, a broken leg, an injury, an allergy")

#2 - Story: how we got or found the illness ("I caught it from...", "I fell down a step")

#3 - Impact: how it affects us ("I'm so weak I can't even get up", "I can't walk", "It's painful to use my hands", "I need an operation").

Image of one person talking to another and a flowchart of Label, Story and Impact

Naturally we use the same framework for mental health.  Label. Story. Impact.

But. Let's look at this from the perspective of the listener.

Labels are numerous and complex - autism, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bereavement, chronic stress, adhd, dyslexia, depression, dyspraxia, post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and many more conditions.  Each having a range of severity; with 'high-functioning' on the one hand (where the sufferer is able to function effectively, despite the condition) to totally debilitating or even needing constant care on the other.

The Story associated with the condition is often overwhelmingly negative and emotional.  Mine involves the death of a child, which led to my PTSD.  At the start of my talk ("Mentally Healthy Conversations") I invite my audience to play the role of my boss, teacher, friend, colleague or tutor.  And then I hit them with my Story.  The draining emotion of my story conveys the point well - this is not a good way to get support for mental health.  It drains the listener.

The Impact is also both emotional and complex.  My PTSD leads to my hyper-vigilant mind having flashbacks to the death of my son and flashforwards to new potential tragedies. This raises the need for complex explanations about the impact of trauma on the way our brains process bad experiences.