Student mental health: friends on the front line

On University Mental Health Day, Nicola Byrom highlights peers’ supportive role

March 3, 2016
People holding hands, sitting in a circle

Up and down the country, students are supporting friends through mental health difficulties. Among the student community, mental health difficulties are common, and friends are often the first source of support. The Looking after a Mate research project, conducted by the charity Student Minds, worked with 79 university students to learn more about the experience of supporters and to understand the highs and the lows of supporting a friend.

One participant in the project summed up their experience: “At times I have felt unable to support my friend…sometimes I have gotten frustrated…and then angry at myself for not understanding…I have felt guilty when I have forgotten to touch base with her. I can be neglectful sometimes, or I can feel I am not providing enough. I have also sometimes felt like I am not appreciated for the support I do give, but that can feel like a very selfish approach, as I don’t do it for that.”

The study showed that students who are supporting friends are likely to know many people experiencing mental health difficulties. From this study, supporters are also twice as a likely to be experiencing mental health difficulties themselves. This reflects a tendency for students who are experiencing difficulties to reach out to, make friends with and support others in a similar position.

Friends are often the primary source of support

About one in three of the students taking part in this research project felt that they were the primary source of support for their friend, and one in five was supporting a friend who was receiving no support from mental health professionals.

However, strong networks of social support are important; where students identified a wider network of social support (friends, family and peer support), they reported having less responsibility for providing support themselves, which reduced the impact that their friend’s mental health difficulties had on the activities and conversations they shared. This improves the supporters’ experience of providing support and increases their ability to make the most of their university experience.

This maps on to the key advice in the Looking after a Mate project: keep doing all the things that you used to do and that you enjoy as friends! It also illustrates the importance of encouraging students to talk more about their mental health, even if just within their friendship circles – the more friends involved, the easier it is for any individual friend to cope.

The role of the supporter

Student supporters had mixed feelings about the role of supporting a friend. Some felt that they had been able to remain friends, while others felt that their relationship had become focused on caregiving. Students providing support need support themselves; they need help working out what their role is and how they can provide support while taking care of themselves, too. Students need reassurance that it is OK to think about their own needs.

Student supporters need more information and support

At the moment, supporters don’t feel that they have enough information about support groups or how to meet other supporters to share experiences. They also don’t have enough information about their friend’s prognosis, current and future treatment plans, treatment options or what to do in the case of a relapse.

More than half of supporters wanted some level of contact with professionals, to understand more about their friend’s prognosis, treatment plan and what they could do to provide support; only five students in this study had had any contact with or information from professionals supporting their friend.

The majority of supporters had assisted in arranging professional support for their friend. Professionals were most likely to be providing support on a relatively infrequent basis (less often than weekly). In contrast, student supporters were in contact with their friends daily. Student supporters also feel that they too need support from friends, family, counselling, GPs and healthcare professionals.

We need to put student supporters in the picture. We need to recognise the level of support that they provide and the responsibility that they feel they are taking on. They play an important role in encouraging help-seeking and are there as a continuous source of support. This is a challenging role to take on, and these students deserve support. It is time for all of us to put our heads together to work out how to be there for all those who are stepping up to support their peers.

Nicola Byrom is founder and trustee of Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity. She is stipendiary lecturer in psychology at Somerville College, Oxford.

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