Mental health issues among students are currently very high on the agenda for directors of student services, mental health professionals and politicians alike. The Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has announced a new charter prioritising mental health for students, and in his keynote address at the annual National Conference hosted by AMOSSHE recently, NUS Vice-President Amatey Doku highlighted it as “one of the most significant issues” currently facing universities.
Meanwhile, there is an ongoing debate around what some perceive as the corrosive effect of the Internet. Particularly the impact social media can have on the mental health of young people. Arguably common beliefs among many of those responsible for young people’s wellbeingare that they must be discouraged from spending so much time online in order to develop life skills and better emotional resilience in ‘real world’ settings.
While there may be some truth in this, it is not wholly realistic. There are other perspectives, and emerging evidence that challenges this perspective. In the debate taking place among older adults, the perspective of young adults often goes unheard. Online is where much of this generation conduct their lives, seamlessly with the offline environment, because that’s all they’ve known. This has shaped their perspective and their expectations so why would it make sense to discount it when talking about mental health?
At a recent panel discussion we hosted, entitled ‘Using digital to build student mental resilience’ one of the panellists Kirsty Palmer, Director of Student Services at Cardiff Metropolitan University, made an excellent point. She suggested that we should allow students to develop their own communities. These won’t replace other more established ideas of ‘community’ but instead will provide an environment where students can ‘dip in and out’, which will actively contribute to resilience-building in ways which are familiar and transferrable.
Universities, Kirsty argued, are not crisis response units and have finite resources in this respect. Neither do the mental health professionals operating in these environments have all the answers. Why not provide a safe environment and allow students to develop a constructive space that works for them? This will help organisations scale the services they offer and focus resources where they are most needed.
The Internet is here to stay. While social media platforms may evolve and change, or even disappear entirely, changes in culture, such as 24/7 communication, commerce and expectations around accessibility are unlikely to. Unless students and young people are given a way to support their mental health and wellbeing that links with the rest of their life experiences, then they, and wider society, will surely be the losers.
As a member of our panel session audience succinctly put it: “I’m an advocate of digital services because that’s the language young people speak.”
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