Exam pressure can be “icing on the cake” for stressed students

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Palatinate spoke to Noel McDermott, a health and social care professional, about how students can protect themselves and support others during stressful periods.

This follows a recent article by Palatinate which found reports of mental illness amongst Durham freshers had risen by 94%. Mr McDermott has worked for over 25 years supporting clients and families struggling with depression, addiction, trauma, eating disorders. He noted that university students are particularly at risk of developing mental health issues, especially during their exam times.

Although he admitted that young people have an improved engagement to healthy living than his own generation, Mr McDermott recognises that there are added pressures that young people face today.

“Students should learn to develop healthy stress management systems”

He explained that students should learn to develop healthy stress management systems as opposed to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

He said: “The key to prevention of problems is learning great stress management and also getting good knowledge on signs and symptoms of mental illness. The sooner you get help the better.”

Mr McDermott said that universities could help students during exam time by providing information on where to get advice to promote mentally healthy exam and study practice.

Examples may include encouraging regular breaks, promoting sleep, enabling students to study in groups, discouraging the use of performance enhancing drugs, reducing the intake of caffeine and alcohol and eating and exercising regularly.

The biggest piece of advice Mr McDermott offers to students is to “learn mindful meditation and learn to share your troubles.” He went on to explain ways in which students can support one another. For instance, a ‘mental health first aider’ is a person who is trained in assessing signs of mental illness or distress and is knowledgeable and skilled in getting someone professional help.

Even if students are not trained as a ‘mental health first aider’, they can still spot potential signs of someone suffering from mental health issues. The biggest signs to look out for are “significant changes in personality, mood, eating or sleeping habits”, “increased use of drink or drugs”, and “blowing things out of proportion and becoming easily agitated.”

Ultimately, Mr McDermott advises a non-judgemental approach that encourages the individual to seek professional help for people seeking to support their friends who may be suffering. He said: “Be clear with your friend that you care for them but are not qualified to help. Get hold of leaflets from your college about mental health help and read them with your friend.”

In the wake of the coroner’s report on the suicide of Ben Murray, the former Bristol University student, universities are under increased pressure to pay attention to the mental wellbeing of their students and to destigmatise mental health problems.

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