Thousands of University students are affected by mental health issues in the UK each year. Studies have shown that one in four students experience mental health problems whilst at University as a result of financial and educational pressures. The prevention of mental health disorders, promotion of mental wellbeing and provision of effective treatment is often hampered by the stigmas that having a mental health problem brings. For real progress to be seen, there needs to be a greater awareness of mental health by the wider population.
In this piece, I speak to ‘Positiviteeth’, who hope to combat the issues of mental health stigmatism within dentistry at Manchester University by encouraging open and honest conversations via their Instagram platform. The initiative was founded by 5th year dental student, Zahra Ali, who was soon joined by three 4th year students; Own Kelly, Sam Matthews, and Melika Hedayat.
The issue of mental health is very close to my heart and so as soon as they launched their page, I knew I had to grab them for a chat.
What was the driving force behind creating a platform that engages our dental students to speak out about their experiences with mental health?
Dentistry is a difficult degree and dental school can be tough. Understandably, the stress amongst a whole host of other things, can take its toll on our mental health. However, it’s really difficult to sometimes talk openly about difficulties we’re going through due to stigma surrounding mental health and as a result, if you’re ever suffering it can feel really lonely.
We thought if we could encourage conversations around mental health, we can show fellow dental students that it’s okay not to be okay and that they’re not the only ones struggling.
Our aim isn’t to try and ‘fix everyone’s problems but to try and create a closer, more supportive and tight-knit feel within the dental school by normalising talking about how we’re feeling!
I can imagine there is so much work to be done in such an overwhelming field, what work have you been doing so far?
We have been running our first campaign titled ‘why is mental health important to me’ over the past month. We have been featuring stories from students about the reasons mental health is important to them. All of the stories have been amazing so far and have ranged from personal accounts of struggling with depression and anxiety, struggling with burnout and the demands of the course to the importance of self-care and recognising signs within yourself when you’re not okay.
Do you have any examples of stories that have been sent in during the ‘why is mental health important to me’ campaign?
‘It may sound ignorant but before I came to university, mental health was never something I ever thought about or even cared about. I can safely say that I have definitely become more aware of it since.
Throughout uni I have struggled with imposter syndrome, I have always felt like nothing compared to the people on my course and because of that I have always felt like I have had something to prove. Being a massive worry bug means I can worry about absolutely anything and a lot of the time it makes me very distant and brings me down because all I can think about is that one thing that’s worrying me. I can come across rude or blunt but I really don’t mean it and that’s the most frustrating thing.
Worse than that is the stress and burnout, I go into a very bad mood when I’m stressed and as a result, the people around me get the worst of it (thank you for my boyfriend and friends for putting up with me).
I’ve had a lot of mental breakdowns throughout the last few years in dental school (I’m sure we all have) but reading other people’s experiences has made me feel like I’m not alone and that feels SO GOOD.
Reading related posts from @drhiraajamil and now this amazing Instagram that Zahra has made, has made my heart so warm. It’s okay to not be okay and most importantly no one is alone! We are a group of people who don’t usually open up about these things because it makes us feel weak, but really opening up is not a sign of weakness but a sign of great strength.
Let’s get this page shared as much as we can because mental health is so so important.’
Melika (4th year)
‘Burnout is real and by choosing to ignore it had led me to be faced with the serious decision to withdraw from dentistry in second year.
Having already graduated with a degree and then starting all over again was something I had difficulty adjusting to for a very long time. However, I just bottled up those feelings and kept on distracting myself by becoming ‘more busy’ in work, with friends or taking on more extracurricular activities.
It wasn’t until the start of second year, I had an honest conversation with my year head that I could no longer motivate myself to continue with university. I had experienced the worst burn out and couldn’t overcome the negative feelings of starting another degree. This definitely wasn’t the easiest conversation. Nor did I choose to tell many people as I felt I was the only one in this situation or wouldn’t be ‘taken seriously’ as academically I was performing well.
However, to this day I am grateful I took that step and for the continual support from my year head throughout that difficult year. It encouraged me to start making changes that have benefitted my emotional well-being.
Thankfully I now enjoy university again. However, on reflection, I will never let myself reach that point again and that is why I view mental health as important. Therefore, I hope this post encourages someone to finally reach out and please don’t let the stigma or fear of whatever it may be hold you back, as it’s much better on the other side.’
Noor (4th year)
It sounds like the campaign has been a huge success, have you got any ideas on future campaigns that you will run?
We’re planning on running our next campaign on our experiences during lockdown such as
how students have been coping and what they’re looking forward to when life returns to normal.
We would also like to run a campaign on how ethnicity has affected the mental health of BAME students whether it be to do with experiences within dental school or with accessing support and therapies.
In essence, we’d just like to keep running campaigns which encourage sharing our experiences and talking about how we’re feeling!
It all sounds very exciting and I can’t wait to keep tuning into your page throughout my final years studying dentistry!
I’m sure you have learned so much from curating ‘Positiviteeth’. Could you share any of your newly acquired knowledge to help any students who are struggling with their mental health?
Unfortunately, there is no instant cure to treating mental health issues and is instead a journey that requires resilience, a strong support network and knowing your self-worth. As much as it is important to keep up with exercise, distinguish a healthy work-life balance and get a good night’s sleep, it’s also important to stop comparing yourself to your peers, take some time off social media and focus on yourself and your own achievements before being too hard on yourself. After all, we’ve all made it to university which is an achievement we should all be proud of.
And finally, if somebody is struggling with their mental health at University, where can they go for help?
- The university counselling service-, it’s free and you can usually get an appointment fairly quickly. They can also refer or signpost you to other services.They have more information on how to get in contact on their website.
- Nightline- they offer confidential support over the phone or via email. Their number can be found on the back of your student card
- A trusted tutor or your academic advisor
- Your GP
- Big White Wall- an online community which provides support to those struggling
It was great to speak to such an innovative group of students who are striving to combat mental health discrimination and stigmatism. If you want to follow their initiative or get involved, then follow their Instagram account or send them a message using the handle @positiviteeth.
Thanks for reading and if anyone would like their student initiative featured on this blog series then feel free to get in touch!