Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care, Cllr Paulette Hamilton, reflects on reports that a rising number of students are experiencing mental health issues.
Every year at this time, we welcome thousands of new students to Birmingham. The newcomers to our city are predominantly young and for most of them this is the first time they’ve ever lived away from home.
It’s an exciting time, it’s an emotional time and for many it’s a stressful time.
So it came as no real surprise to see in the news that rising numbers of students across the country are struggling to cope with life on campus, with sharp rises in the demand for counselling.
We’re talking about young people who are away from home for the first time. They have to make new friends, manage their time and finances, get to know a new town or city and get into a new routine.
Inevitably some students struggle to cope and that can lead to feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety and depression. And because mental health is still so stigmatised, many of these struggling students will be reluctant to seek help.
Today’s reports have focussed on universities and whether or not they enough support for emotional and mental health problems and I must say that I have quite a bit of sympathy for colleges and universities here.
Yes – of course they should support students – and most universities and colleges have services dedicated to mental wellbeing. The University of Birmingham for example has a Mental Health Advisory Service that offers support to students experiencing mental health issues.
But surely we should be talking to our young people about mental wellbeing long before they head off to university.
If we started talking about mental health from primary school onwards, there would be much less of a stigma, meaning young people needing help would be more likely to seek it.
The sad fact is that far too many of our young people don’t know enough about mental wellbeing and that has to change. I would support mental health education being added to the National Curriculum so we can remove the taboo and give our young people a greater understanding of this issue.
One in four of us will experience a mental health problem and if we’re preparing people for life, we should prepare them for better mental health.
Now I’m not going to get all party political about this, but as the dust settles over the make-up of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, I can’t help thinking that one of the most significant appointments is one that almost slipped by unnoticed – that of Luciana Berger as shadow minister of mental health.
To me that’s a welcome development that will hopefully raise the profile of what, all too often, is a forgotten crisis.
Mental health issues cross all divides and are no respecter of age, sex, class, creed, nationality or political persuasion. We can all be affected and very few people will go through their whole life untouched by the issue.
That’s why I also welcomed the Department for Education decision to create a new role of a mental health champion for schools. Natasha Devon’s job is to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around young people’s mental health.
So there’s general agreement that this is a major issue. Now we have to do something about it and I think adding mental health awareness to the National Curriculum would represent a massive step in the right direction.
Hopefully that would better prepare our young people for life, meaning fewer struggled to cope when venturing out into the wide world for the first time.