Mental Health Awareness Week 2020: In Conversation With: Laura Smith

Content Warning: Mental Illness

For Mental Health Awareness Week 2020, our editor, Imy Brighty-Potts sat down (over the phone of course, Covid-19 is still happening) with psychology student and pioneer in developments of student mental health resources, Laura Smith. A student at the University of Southampton poised to begin her masters, she is developing new technology alongside her team mates to help combat a leading cause of mental health problems in student communities: loneliness.

Laura’s team, as part of a university module on social enterprise and enacting positive social change, had to come up with a solution to a student problem, and being a psychology student, Laura thought there may be something to be done about the epidemic of loneliness among university students in the UK. I asked Laura why this project? Why do this? And she explained:

“I saw how prevalent loneliness is amongst students with my own experiences…During my first semester of first year at uni, it was quite difficult to adjust to not having like a really close network of friends and family close by. It was really isolating. I felt like everyone I was talking to was just a surface level connection… I am quite an extroverted person, and the fact that I was feeling that way was just awful to me because imagine if I had been shy or struggled to talk to new people.”

But it was more than just an individual or small scale issue, as Laura quickly discovered:

“When you look into the literature…One in three students say they have experienced loneliness, and this isn’t talked about individually, it is lumped in with mental health. We quite often look at the symptoms of mental health issues and not the causes… But at our university that means 7000 students are going through this!”

Through her own struggles in adjusting to student life, Laura identified several things that seemed to restrict integration and socialisation that she had not encountered in education before, that was leading herself, and others to feel this way.

“We have the changes in the university system compared to school and college up until that point. At lower education we are in classrooms of thirty people, it’s classroom teaching, so you get a lot of interaction and you talk to the people you are sat next to as well. So it is a lot easier to make friends that way. You have lunch times, your whole day is scheduled out for you with those people. So it becomes really easy to foster those connections.”

Many students will know however, that life is very different at universities. Lecture halls can be full of hundreds of people, and with little or no breaks to even interact with the person typing away next to you, meeting new people, or finding people on your wavelength can be really difficult. This is particularly the case for subjects with few contact hours (I personally had a semester with only 6 contact hours of teaching a week and found making friends very challenging). Laura acknowledged also the isolating elements of international study and exchanges, with language and cultural differences. Laura stressed that BAME students, LGBTQ+ students and those from different cultural and social backgrounds are particularly at risk of these issues, because they can often feel like it is harder to meet people they identify with, with similar lifestyles or experiences. Is this therefore a systemic issue? Laura explained:

“The university system is kind of responsible for these issues because although it isn’t designed to do that, the business models in place often prioritise profit over student experience. It is a bit telling in the statistics, that so many students are feeling this way.

There is a certain expectation of what university should be like, and Laura touched on this:

University is packaged in a way where it is supposed to be this once in a lifetime experience, something you are never forget, where you are going to meet friends for life. And some people find that, fortunately, in their flats in the first week of uni. Which is all well and good… but unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. The system is entirely random, and you might really like the people you lived with but you might have nothing in common! This can leave people feeling like there is something wrong with them, because they aren’t having the experiences they thought they would! They may think: is there something wrong with me? I am not deserving of that kind of connection.”

And so, as a preventative measure for these issues of adjustment and poor integration leading to mental health problems, Laura and her team started to develop their ideas and so this campaign and the app “UniPal” was born. An app designed to help people at university meet safely and openly, and helping them adjust to the social difficulties and requirements of university life. Dampening the blow of this catalyst of mental health issues is taking the focus back to the cause of mental health issues instead of treating them when they arise. Laura said insightfully:

“If we can intercept before things become actual issues, it will save so much on resources and could be really beneficial for the NHS. It would save so much emotional turmoil for the individual and it is something that we need to shift attitudes on as a collective.”

The app is set to launch this summer, which is particularly poignant in the crisis we are currently facing. With many students distanced from friends, communities and support networks and moving back to their homes or being left alone, this app could prove truly invaluable come September, where online teaching could become the norm. Laura expressed her feelings that societies and groups should and could be taken online, so that students still have an experience as close to that which they would have being physically together. Societies and extracurricular activities, Laura told me, can improve student wellbeing and encourage a better academic performance, due to the community and support they can provide. We at The Hysteria Collective are very much advocate for this, and advise any students who want to get involved in clubs and societies to do so, and to consider becoming involved in this collective.

Since the app is not launching just yet, I asked Laura what advice she would give to someone now who is struggling with loneliness.

“I would definitely say that loneliness isn’t your fault. People go through so much, particularly in a Lockdown during a global pandemic. There is so much uncertainty. It is perfectly natural to feel lonely when you are stuck at home, but being lonely doesn’t mean you are the issue. Please reach out to friends, or family or a trusted loved one, or if that is too difficult please use mental health resources available to you. Put yourself out there a bit, and I appreciate that isn’t as easy for everyone, and that is when as a community we need to work together to empathise with people and understand what they are going through.”

Speaking to Laura, and hearing about her and her teams project, is truly inspiring. You can tell that she is a genuinely kind, caring and understanding woman, and we want to wish her and everyone involved in the project all the luck in the world. What they are doing could be totally life changing for some people and we hope you check out the resources coming out from their team over the next few months.

If you are struggling with your mental health please check out the resources available on these websites:

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