The pandemic has vastly magnified some of the triggers that can lead to poor mental health such as stress, worries, financial pressure, isolation and loneliness, while social distancing has taken away many of our outlets that would usually help us cope during stressful times, such as meeting friends or family, exercising, travelling or socialising. Psychiatrists are speaking of a global mass trauma comparable to a world war. Even as some parts of the world slowly emerge – while others are still combating the heights of the crisis - it is clear that we all have to be kind to ourselves and others and look out for each other’s wellbeing to help us come through.
The Place now has 19 Mental Health First Aiders among its permanent workforce, who have gone through full MHFA training to spot the early signs and symptoms of mental ill health. Three further staff members have trained as Mental Health First Aiders with a special focus on young people.
Our Mental Health First Aiders act as a first point of contact and reassurance for staff or students who may be experiencing a mental health issue or emotional distress and signpost them to professional support. They are trained to start supportive conversations, to listen non-judgementally and hold a wealth of knowledge about available resources or access to professional support a person might need.
MHFAs are not counsellors, therapists or psychiatrists and are not trained to provide diagnoses, medication or ongoing support. They can however assist in a crisis and can be valuable in providing early intervention for someone who may be developing a mental health issue.
To expand the existing support for LCDS students, The Place also appointed a designated Student Mental Health Adviser. Ben Walford is a social worker who has worked in Higher Education mental health support for over 7 years. What drew him to work with dance students in particular? “I enjoy the arts and I like supporting creative young people through their challenges with their mental health to go and create interesting things for the rest of us to enjoy.”
Dance students may have a specific set of challenges around body image, weight, acute self-consciousness around how they look and how they come across, because the body is intrinsically a part of dance. But Ben is adamant that dancers are also just humans with the same basic needs to do with mental health, such as good diet, good sleep, supportive relationships in their lives, and the absence of huge amounts of stress. The fact that he is not part of their dance world with its specific pressures and expectations is proving quite helpful. “I remind them that they are human beings first and foremost, before being dancers and even at a later stage in life when they might be doing other things. With many students I have found it to be a bit of a relief to talk to someone who is away from all that.”
Every person is different in their needs and choices, some students may need only a short talk with Ben, others may decide to seek other supports such as counselling. Very often, Ben notices, a Higher Education professional is the very first person that anyone speaks to about their mental health. “My job is often to help people articulate their needs and enable them to say those things to others such as NHS professionals or their GP or therapist. I help people to open up and talk about their mental health and what they need.”
While our students are always our priority, the Mental Health Fist Aiders amongst our staff have learned helpful tips and strategies to take better care of themselves and help their colleagues and team members as well as their family, friends and loved ones outside of work. They have learned about the idea of the ‘stress bucket’ that can have a different holding volume for different people. We all have different levels of resilience before we feel overwhelmed. This is particularly important now as the return to work and the lifting of social distancing measures looms – different people may have very different feelings about this that we should be mindful of.
Another popular take away was the idea of a ‘Happiness Hour’ – one hour a week solely dedicated to something that makes you happy, as a way to reset the stress bucket and make sure to relief some pressure and actively tend to your mental wellbeing. A well-stocked ‘toolbox’ of things to do to help you relax, pause or find joy is vital, rather than depending on any one coping mechanism, that can become an unhelpful strategy.
Good mental health is as important as physical health and should be as obvious to talk about as any physical concern. There is greater awareness and acceptance about how different things can enter peoples’ lives at any stage and affect their mental health. To help destigmatise mental health and create better awareness we need to be open to start a conversation. In order to take care of each other and support each other better, often a first step can be as simple as asking, what is going on with you? How are you coping? What do you need?