The Monica Fooks Memorial Lectures were established in 2002 to promote understanding of and combat the stigma around mood disorders. At this year’s Monica Fooks Lecture, we were privileged to welcome Professor Sir Simon Wesseley.
Professor Sir Simon is a psychiatrist and epidemiologist. A past President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal Society of Medicine, he is the first ever first Regius Chair of Psychiatry in this country and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He established the King’s Centre for Military Health Research in 1996, and was the Director of the PHE NIHR Health Protection Unit for Emergency Response and Preparedness (2014-2022).
During a witty yet searching talk, Professor Wessely questioned the extent to which our perceptions of a mental health crisis are based in fact. He considered likely symptoms of this distorted perception, tracing a popular mistrust of information technology from our current preoccupation with screens all the way back to the neurasthenia epidemic of the 1870s-90s (in which the contemporary vices of newspapers at breakfast, telegrams and women’s education were all blamed!).
Professor Wessely noted that, happily, mental health problems are now being discussed and reported openly in universities, without the secrecy or stigma that once exacerbated them. He then drew a careful distinction between mental illness and some of the mental health issues students often report, such as homesickness, loneliness and friendship issues, all of which may not benefit from being ‘professionalised’ by a clinician.
Instead, Professor Wessely suggested that student wellbeing might be improved by investing in the strengthening of students’ social networks through sport, volunteering and other initiatives. He also noted a programme he has helped implement in the British Army, in which the next person up the hierarchy (e.g. a sergeant) is trained to look out for obvious changes in mood, based on the logic that these close relationships networks are often best at identifying changes and offering help.
In her closing comments, Somerville’s Principal Jan Royall noted that the University of Oxford is currently trialling a scheme similar to the model Professor Wessely proposed. Jan expressed the hope that this trial would be successful and the University and Somerville College would continue their pioneering work on student wellbeing and mental health.