The youth mental health website “Headstrong” defines mental health as “a way to describe the state of your mind, feelings, emotions and nerves. Mental health is the balance between all aspects of life–social, physical, spiritual and emotional. It impacts on how we manage our surroundings and make choices in our lives.”
While mental health is being discussed more and more by young people, many of us still mistake mental health for mental illness as both terms can often be used interchangeably. Doctor John Hillery is a consultant psychiatrist in the HSE and the director of the External Affairs Department of the College of Psychiatrists Ireland and defines mental health as “not just the absence of disease, it’s a positive sense of mental wellbeing and being able to cope with everyday life”.
Both the stigma and the misunderstanding surrounding mental health clouds the issues it aims to tackle. “There is a fear of talking of mental health in Ireland because we think we’re talking about mental illness,” says Hillery. “We have to get past that [stigma] and talk about mental health… we have to have the conversation about how we promote mental health in the country.”
Hillery continues, “When we talk about promoting health we talk about doing healthy things like exercise, diet; but when we talk about mental health we tend to talk about mental illness, and we need to change that conversation.”
“When we talk about promoting health we talk about doing healthy things like exercise, diet; but when we talk about mental health we tend to talk about mental illness, and we need to change that conversation”
UCDSU aims to address just that issue and has recently announced the creation of a new position in the Student Union, a Mental Health Coordinator to promote awareness of the issues affecting UCD student’s mental health. The position exists under the auspices of the Welfare Office. Andrew McKeown, the new UCDSU Mental Health Coordinator, says “It is my duty to assist the Welfare and Equality Officer in all campaigning and lobbying on mental health issues, especially those issues that are pertinent to UCD students.”
McKeown continued, “While the election only took place two weeks ago, the Office was first created last semester. The delay occurred because the Union is committed to an open democratic legislative process, and wished to ensure the constitutionality of the position.”
The aims of those working in the area of youth mental health, including Hillery, are to promote and advocate for proper mental health services and promoting mental health as opposed to dealing with mental illness- in Hillery’s words, “that means getting there before people get ill.” Andrew McKeown aims to do much the same thing in UCD.
Hillery believes that the creation of the role of a Mental Health Coordinator was a positive step. “When people come to college they need supports around things that will make their college life better and also make them feel better about themselves and set them up for the rest of their lives,” says Hillery. “Someone needs to advocate to ensure that the resources are there and they deliver the help when it’s needed for people who have those problems but it has to be a bigger picture thing and it sounds… [like] that what’s this person will be.”
For many people, going to college can affect or alter their mental health. “When people come to college they’re at a stage in their lives where there’s a lot of changes going on with them anyway and a lot of stresses, new challenges and, for any of us that’s a time when we have to make sure that we work our own resilience and look after ourselves,” says Hillery. “We know that when people leave school and go to college they go from a position of… being told what to do, to having to do things ourselves so there can be a big leap from the point of view of problem solving there, and then people go from a small close knit community of school… into the larger grounds that is UCD.”
Hillery named isolation, binge-drinking and self-harm as things that seriously harm people’s mental health but are not talked about enough. In 2012, Headstrong and the UCD School of Psychology published a National Study of Youth Mental Health. The survey found that 61% of young adults were outside the normal range for drinking behaviour. 43% reported that they had thought that their life was not worth living at some point. 51% had thought about taking their life. 21% reported that they had deliberately hurt themselves without wanting to take their life. As Hillery put it, “there are a lot of things going on that I think people are afraid to talk about.”
Hillery had this advice to give someone in the role of Mental Health Coordinator of UCD: “The main issue around mental illness is isolation in the broadest term of the word.” “Making sure everyone is included to a certain extent, making sure the supports are there and the ethos is there within the university.”
A huge part of the role of mental health coordinator is to raise awareness about mental health issues as well as where and how people can obtain information about their mental health. The National Youth Mental Health Survey asked what sources had young adults used to obtain information or support about their mental health and well-being. The internet was the most common source (55%), followed by friends (52%) and parents (45%). 15% had used student counselling services, 3% had consulted a lecturer, and only 2% had used a phone help-line.
While McKeown won’t be dealing with students directly, he will be promoting positive mental health on campus as well as raising students’ awareness of the services available to them should they be having problems. McKeown said: “I will be coordinating with Pleasetalk, ReachOut and BodyWhys in organising events later in the semester, and the office is currently in talks with the IADT Student Union about an inter-union Positive Mental Health initiative.”
As Hillery said, “People need to know where they can go if they are worried about a friend.” If students are experiencing difficulties, they can contact, and make appointments with the UCD Counselling Service (01-7163133)