Peter Shaw: Mental Health Awareness at University

Peter Shaw discusses his experience as a university employee and how employer awareness and support can be crucial in helping people with mental health issues to embrace working life.

working students

As someone who’s spent a long time struggling with mental illness (anxiety and depression) it’s actually taken me a while to feel able to talk out about my mental health and how I’m feeling, openly and honestly. Volunteering, which I began around 3 years ago, has had a massive impact on my ability to do this, as I’ve worked with charities that support people with lived experience of mental illness and given them skills to share their stories, inspire change, and thrive in life.

Despite this, though, I’m not as open as I would like to be. Context and situations matter a lot to me and I don’t like disclosing my struggles unless I know people properly for a bit, or unless there is an awareness that mental illness is what connects us (such as when I’m volunteering for a charity). Getting my first taste of paid work has allowed me to see how I can cope with my mental health in a new setting. It has also allowed me to see, from another angle, a place in which I spent a lot of time suppressing my mental illness: university.

So having been a student I now work at a university, and at my workplace there is a certain level of awareness and appreciation of mental illness that I have found surprising from day one of being there. The staff website page advertises the wellbeing section straight away and, within that section, the five ways to wellbeing are shown together with links to internal and external help. These include information on wellbeing classes at work, how to exercise more while at work, and services in the Sheffield area.

There are links to other services in case you feel in crisis and need support. Recently, the university has announced a new therapy service that will help staff with mental health issues while at the same time alleviating the demand on student wellbeing services (which could previously be used by staff as well as students).

However, I feel that more work needs to be done, not only in providing better support through the new service (currently it’s difficult to log in to and has a lot of emphasis on phone support, something I shy away from at the best of times) but also through the way work is designed. This isn’t something unique to the university of course, but being at work is often long and draining for me and I’ve needed to adjust accordingly by taking myself outside during my lunch break and make the most of training opportunities to take a break from my usual routine.

While I haven’t yet used the therapy service or taken advantage of lunchtime yoga and mindfulness classes, it is heartening to know they are there when I need them. Crucially though, I have found the training around mental health to be very accessible and of an excellent quality. Three courses are currently run, two being official mental health first aider (MHFA) courses and one being a short course based on MHFA guidelines. While there are issues around booking them (the full 2-day course is almost permanently booked up) this speaks more about how the training at the university can’t keep pace with people demanding it, which is good evidence that the university’s investment in official MHFA trainers is worth it!

Having attended the other two, I can say the training was of a very good standard and is the sort that will stay with me. I have already used the information around mental illness from my MHFA manual to tell me about how to approach suicidal people better and understand how I can make my life at work with anxiety and depression better for me. I learned a lot from both, particularly the 1-day course, and being surrounded by other people from different areas of the university (from other interns like me to academics & higher-up support staff) showed that the training is reaching wide areas of the university and will have a good impact on the university as a whole.

While it’s difficult for me use the available support (as I have always struggled with approaching people), the fact that it is there has been reassuring and given me confidence: just a few months into my internship with the university I felt confident enough to attend two classes on mental health and illness, something I couldn’t have contemplated doing at work before. The university has been flexible as well in supporting me with my volunteering, allowing me to take half-days off, and it has been heartwarming to see the staff wellbeing site list two organisations I work for: the Time to Change pledge is prominently displayed front and centre (as well as in several of the main buildings) and the Sheffield Mental Health Guide is listed under the five ways to wellbeing. Even little things like seeing the ten ways to support someone with a mental illness from MHFA being displayed in our staff kitchen is reassuring. And it’s clear that the university is not just giving lip service to supporting mental illness: raising money through the yearly National Student Survey for Student Minds shows that.

So I can say that while I have had rough times at work, and having been worried about how my mental health would be, the university’s awareness of mental illness and the help that’s available puts my mind at ease and I feel that I have support to turn to if I need it.

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