“An afternoon walk in the sunshine across Port Meadow and along the banks of the river gave me space to reflect on the pressures faced by students, and the need for a greater focus on mental wellbeing.
This is a very real issue for Oxford University but it is also global. On Saturday I was proud to chair an excellent panel discussion on ‘Student Mental Wellbeing – global perspectives on breaking down barriers’ hosted by Somerville and the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development. Before the discussion Mrs Neerja Birla, who founded Mpower India’s leading mental health movement, spoke passionately about the situation in India and the pioneering work of Mpower. The challenge is enormous because of the sheer number of people needing mental health care – 13.7% of a population of 1.324 billion – when there is virtually no provision in the country, and also because of the stigma and culturally specific issues that increase the barriers. Indian students, like our own, are facing increasing pressures and their mental health is suffering. However, they are at the forefront of Indian society in terms of being more open about mental health issues. It will take a long time for Indian society as a whole to the break barrier of stigma, but young people are leading the way understanding that, as Mrs Birla put it, “it’s ok not to be ok but it’s not ok not to seek help”.
One of the panellists, Poppy Jaman, is the CEO and co-founder of Mental Health First Aid, which is making a real difference in this country by training people in schools and in the public and private sector to recognise when people have a mental health issue and how to offer them help. It is a social enterprise and one of the fastest growing women-led small businesses in the UK. Poppy is now also working with MPower and will be a catalyst for change in India, making a difference to people’s lives, addressing problems before they turn into a crisis.
The other panellists are also making a real difference, not least to the lives of students here in Oxford. Alan Percy, Head of the University’s Counselling Service; Anne Ford, who brought peer support to Oxford and is now running the University Peer Support Programme; and Nicola Byrom, a Lecturer in Psychology at Somerville and at King’s College, London. Nicola made a very powerful contribution, drawing on her personal experience of mental health difficulties. She founded Student Minds in 2009 with the ambition of changing the way that we talk about mental health in higher education. Student Minds now has a network of student groups on campuses throughout the UK. Everyone on the platform spoke of how important the issue of student mental wellbeing is for all of us working in Somerville. Nonetheless, I recognise that our College, like the rest of the University, still faces challenges. There has been great improvement but there remains a stigma associated with mental health problems that we need to break down. We must all recognise that it is absolutely fine to speak about these issues and to seek help. There is no shame. Many of us will suffer from a mental health problem in our lives and most of us are close to someone who is suffering or has suffered. We have to have honest conversations and take time to listen to each other. There is, of course, also a need to ensure that counselling and treatment are as swift as possible. There must be real parity between mental and physical health care.
At the end of the discussion I asked the panellists about the change that they most wanted to see in relation to mental health. They all agreed that they wanted a greater emphasis on prevention and that in order to achieve this we should be more compassionate in our attitude towards, and our relationships with, our fellow human beings.
Sounds to me like a good way forward.”