Many people with a mental illness choose to not reveal their condition to their university, family, friends, employers, and others. Non-disclosure can lead to people not accessing the support they need.
Early intervention targets people who are developing the first signs of mental illness. It can reduce the need for complex mental health care at a later date and prevent potential knock-on effects on an individual’s life, such as dropping out of education, relationship break-up, or substance abuse problems.
Mental illness may be ‘characterised by a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others’ (WHO - Mental disorders factsheet), which affect mood, and the ability to function effectively and appropriately. The term is often used interchangeably with mental health issues, problems, difficulties or mental ill health, distress, or condition. However, these terms are broad and can mean something that everyone experiences as part of everyday life, for instance, stress, worry or grief.
Mental illness can also mean an acute, diagnosed condition, mental health crisis, or suicidal depression. Examples of mental illness include: eating disorders, depression, anxiety, bipolar affective disorder, psychoses, intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders including autism.
Mental health is a state of wellbeing: we all have health and we all have mental health. Mental health is a continuum, demonstrating fluidity and the possibility for change over time. This can range from poor mental health to good mental health, from having a diagnosed mental health condition, to no diagnosis. Everyone exists somewhere on the continuum and individuals may need different support levels at different stages of their educational journey. This may include support via a GP or specialist NHS services, alongside support offered through university services.
"Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community."
World Health Organisation (2014)
Mental health literacy is understood as ‘the ability to recognize specific disorders; knowing how to seek mental health information; knowledge of risk factors and causes, of self-treatments, and of professional help available; and attitudes that promote recognition and appropriate help-seeking’ (The British Journal of Psychiatry Nov 2000, 177 (5) 396-401).
Prevalence specifies whether a certain condition is common or not. There has been a gradual increase in the proportion of people disclosing a mental health condition in higher education.
Effective prevention strategies for mental disorders exist. The NHS recommends ‘five ways to wellbeing’, which includes physical exercise, connectedness, learning, giving, and being mindful. Other preventative strategies include increasing the overall mental health literacy, training sessions, or others.
Recovery is possible for individuals with a certain type of mental health condition. To recover means to return to a normal state of health and mind, overcoming the challenges of mental illness or successfully managing it. Recovery can be influenced by supportive social networks, the quality and availability of treatments, and a willingness and ability to seek effective help.
Resilience represents the capacity to recover quickly from various difficulties, for example, trauma, break-ups, or stress. It challenges the notion that individuals are ‘passive victims’ of circumstance and could be understood as a restoring intervention, while also recognising that there are certain things outside of the individual’s control (Popay J, et al. (2007) Social problems, primary care and pathways to help and support. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 61: 966-971). Resilience is affected by environmental, social, emotional and cognitive capital and resources. These factors buffer stress and contribute to the ability to ‘bounce back’ quickly.
Mental health is associated with stigma. The negative attitudes and behaviours can lead to people feeling judged and ashamed, which disincentivises individuals from seeking help and accessing support services.
Transition points in life are particularly challenging and often expose people to emotional vulnerability and mental distress. The ‘Student Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education. Good practice guide’ identified the following transition points for students in higher education:
Wellbeing is understood, in the broad sense, to be feeling good and functioning positively, meaning that a person would be engaged in learning, feel socially connected, and have positive perspectives and autonomy. Wellbeing is expressed in feelings and in dimensions such as persistence, grit, belonging, mindfulness, identity formation, and flourishing. It is possible to have high levels of wellbeing, yet live with a diagnosed mental health condition.