The Under Pressure campaign this week has highlighted the stress associated with studying and various ways to deal with it. However, many students at Imperial struggle with their mental health in silence due to the pervasive attitude that having difficulties with mental health is a weakness. This is also the kind of issue that feeds itself: people assume nobody else is struggling, so they stay silent and then the next person to struggle again assumes nobody else is having difficulty. It is incredibly difficult to break this cycle directly. However there is something we can do: look after your friends.
Ultimately, it’s a lot easier to talk to a friend if you’re struggling than a stranger (or, even worse, a stranger who may be able to impact your grade). As someone’s friend, you can provide them with a comfortable and supportive setting to discuss any difficulties. You’re also in a good position to notice the key outward signs that someone is struggling. The Imperial Counselling Service recommends four key areas to look out for:
Behavioural Changes: Are they acting differently? Examples include changes in sleeping or eating habits, withdrawal from social contact and activities, not attending lectures or society activities as they normally would, and increased use of drugs and alcohol.
Physical Changes: Do they look different? Examples include noticeable weight gain or loss, looking pale or tired or noticeably anxious and worried, and sudden changes in personal hygiene.
Emotional Changes: Have their moods changed? Examples include being consistently more tearful, irritable or sensitive, and more frequent/severe mood swings.
Intellectual Changes: Is what they are saying very different? Examples include continual negative thinking, such as self-deprecating statements or thinking that the worst-case scenario is always going to happen, inability to concentrate, and difficulty following conversations.
As well as being able to notice these signs, it’s also important to have an idea of what to do to support your friends. Here’s a brief overview of things to remember:
- Start the conversation: One of the most helpful things you can do is ask your friend how they are doing, and not just superficially. If you have noticed any of the signs mentioned above, your friend might appreciate the opportunity to get things off their chest. Remember that it is usually easier to have these conversations in private and when you both have enough time to chat. The tone of the conversation is also important: avoid leading questions and don’t probe beyond what your friend is comfortable with. You don’t need to give advice, as often these conversations are useful on their own.
- Make sure they’re taking care of themselves: Whether it’s making sure that they’re having fun with friends, eating right, exercising or sleeping more. Ultimately, taking care of your mental wellbeing is especially important when things are tough. If your friend is dropping the ball on these things, you can text reminders or organise events to give them that extra nudge.
- Take care of yourself first: This is by far the most important point. You don’t need to be on call 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Helping a friend with their struggles requires a lot of emotional effort, and if you’re burning out its ok to take a step back. It’s also important to remember that you might not be able to solve the issues your friend is struggling with, and it may get to the point where professional help is needed. If that’s the case, recognise that what they need is not something that you can give.