By Eleanor Brown (Bugle Team)
The period of time spent at university, whilst being one of the most exhilarating and formative periods of a person’s life, can also be one of the most stressful and lonely. For the first time you are expected to cook, clean, manage budgets, study independently and keep on top of your social life. This, whilst moving to a brand new city and having to build a new support network up from scratch (that’s making friends!) Consequently, looking after student mental health is pivotal and that is the focus of the student mental health charity ‘Student Minds’.
Student Minds was founded by Nicola Byrom in 2009 following her own experiences facing mental health difficulties. She saw a gap in the system and found her own solution to fill it. She set up an informal peer-support group to help people with eating disorders, which is still one of the key areas in which Student Minds operates. The charity is a passionate believer in peer intervention, they believe in students supporting students and also work to raise awareness of the problems faced by students. They aim to help university campuses to be an environment in which people can confidently talk to other students about their mental health and know how to be supportive to one another.
Eating Disorders are serious mental illnesses that can affect a person physically, psychologically and socially. They are prevalent in the UK; over 1.6 million people are affected. This is not to say that eating disorders are not treatable, quite the contrary as full recovery is entirely possible with the right treatment. The most common demographic to have an eating disorder is the 12-20 female age group, but of course it is not limited to just these people as men and women of all ages can also have eating disorders. It is important to remember that eating disorders do not revolve entirely around wanting to be thin, as is popularly misconstrued. They are complex disorders and there is no one sole factor which leads someone to develop the condition. However it is incredibly difficult to recover in isolation. It is hence important to reach out to a GP or the Student Psychological Services here at UCL and of course there is also the support of the eating disorder group run here on campus. With support and proper treatment, there is every opportunity to make a full recovery.
There are a variety of psychological factors and personality traits that could lead an individual to develop an eating disorder, such as low self-esteem, helpless feelings and intense dissatisfaction with the way they look. Specific personality traits such as perfectionism are linked with anorexia and impulsiveness is linked with bulimia. Those with these traits or factors could be led to develop an eating disorder as a coping strategy or reaction to difficulties in their life such as abuse or stress they can’t cope with. There is also of course the social factors that are often seized upon by the popular press such as the current cultural norm that glorifies thinness and ‘the perfect body.’ This ideal is pervasive in our society and incredibly difficult to escape from. It seems that the beauty industry has built its dominance on people being dissatisfied about the way they look in order to sell them a product. Lastly there is currently research into biological factors contributing to eating disorders such as chemicals in the brain that control hunger and appetite being unbalanced in certain individuals. There is also a possible genetic component as it seems that eating disorders can run in families. However, it is clear that, whatever the unique combination of intricate components that cause someone to have an eating disorder, they are complex conditions and can rapidly cycle out of control.
The weekly eating disorder support group provides a confidential and caring space for people currently experiencing eating difficulties to come and talk to other people who are going through the same troubles. They are run by group facilitators who are there not to dictate the session, but to guide it through open questions for those who attend the group. These spaces are run by students, for students.
Student Mind’s at UCL also run sessions for those who are supporting a friend through mental health difficulties, called Look After Your Mate or Supporting Supporters. These too are incredibly important as the impact of mental health difficulties are more far reaching than just the person experiencing them. It is also vital to remember that ‘mental health’ is something we all have in the same way as physical health, and naturally each and every one of us goes through different periods in which our mental health suffers. It is an important thing to know how to look out for. The Look After Your Mate campaigns help to teach individuals how to approach their friends and how to be a good listener. We may think we already are good listeners, but it is surprising how much concentration and attention listening to someone truly takes.
Talking about student mental health is incredibly important. It is a way to start turning the stigma that mental health difficulties unfortunately are still associated with. This can start on campus and in student halls. For more information please see www.studentminds.org.uk or for more information concerning eating disorders please have a look at www.b-eat.co.uk
The UCL support group runs every Tuesdays from 6.30 to 7.30. Please see our Facebook page for more information. https://www.facebook.com/studentmindsucl