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Our students need help to achieve good mental health

Posted on 12 July 2018

My cognitive hypnotherapy for anxiety clinic in Harley Street is usually a pretty unpolitical place, but recently it saw the unusual sight of myself and a colleague cheering a government minister for his words about student mental health.

Sam Gyimah, the minister for universities, science, research and innovation has a good record on mental health issues. He has spoken previously about the terrible stories of student suicide and has now said he will host a health summit with a wide range of groups in the coming weeks to work towards a solution. As he states on his blog, half of mental illness starts before the age of 14 and we must do something now.

In an interview with the Times newspaper, he says that mental health is a bigger issue for students than tuition fees and that higher education institutions must do more to protect students. He commented: “You now have one in two 18 to 30-year-olds going to university, so people are arriving at university with very different needs. Universities have got to respond to this with a more sophisticated offer for students to support them.”

He has also promised to look at the data protection laws which currently prevent universities from informing parents if their student offspring becomes mentally unwell unless the student gives permission.

I hope the government can live up to its promise of a four-week maximum waiting time for young people to access the help which they need and I look forward to seeing what comes out of the events which Mr Gyimah is planning over the summer.

Pressures which make the problem worse

It is good that people in government are doing something. From my professional perspective it seems like the problem of student mental health is getting worse. I see so many young people suffering from acute levels of anxiety at my cognitive hypnotherapy clinics in London and Henley. I also see parents who are at their wits’ end and so worried for their children.

If we are going to solve this issue then we need to know where it is coming from. Most experts who have looked at this, identify increasing societal pressures: including social media, more exams, the feeling of constantly being tested, and the increased concentration on appearance through selfies and Instagram as factors.

What we now know about young people’s minds

We are also beginning to understand the unique nature of young people’s mental processes and how young people experience mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and hypervigilance.

Sally Marlow, a mental health researcher from Kings College London, has covered this recently in some excellent programmes on BBC Radio 4. Here are some of the main points she makes.

Sally reports how we used to think that the brain stopped developing after childhood. Now we know the process goes on into early adulthood. This means the brain is still developing when young people are being asked to make huge life decisions and experience big life changes.

She interviews Jane Blakemore a professor of neuroscience at University College London who studies the adolescent brain. (You can listen to Jane’s TED talk on the subject here). She describes how the brain synapses (the connections we make as we experience the world) are ‘pruned’ as we grow into adulthood. We now know that the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the part used to plan future actions and to interact with other people, is still changing at the time young people become students; and the process continues right through adolescence and up to the age of 25.

We are expecting students to behave in an adult way, to plan and choose their future careers, to meet new people and set up a social life at university, to leave home and live independently, all at a time when their brains are still developing. We expect our students to behave as adults, but the evidence is that they are not biologically ready, brain-ready, to do this. No wonder we have a mental health storm among young people.

Early experiences and how we learn

There are more fascinating discoveries which Sally tells us about. For example: we are learning much more about how our brain development is affected by our early experiences. Eamon McCrory, professor of development neuroscience at London’s University College specialises in how childhood adversity affects future mental health. By studying brain scans, he has found that autobiographical memory, the way we remember and learn from our past, affects not only our behaviour, but also our brain development.

And this matters for our mental health and wellbeing. We need to learn from our memories to live happy lives. If we do this effectively, if we can draw on our past experiences in an efficient way, we have a good guide for living our lives. It makes us better at problem-solving because we can predict outcomes better. We are better at social interaction, because we can map how others are likely to react. On the other hand, if we have problems accessing our own memories we are not so good at these things. This can make life more difficult and this can make us unhappy.

To learn from out past experiences, we need to understand them at a deep level. Professor McCrory says experience of trauma in childhood, for example, alters how autobiographical memory works. If we have unresolved issues, we push memories away, remembering only superficially. This means we do not process the detail we need to learn to act well in the world.

When their brains are scanned in an MRI machine, the brain patterns of those who have suffered bad experiences in childhood look very like the patterns seen in depressed people, with a focus on negative memories and a discounting of positive ones.

This can have a terrible effect on self-esteem and even on a sense of self. And, of course, living in a world where you may feel you are constantly judged and tested can make this toxic.

We now have a way to solve this

This research is showing us a path forward, it shows we are not just prisoners of our biology. How we interact with the world can actually affect how our brains work. Environment, agency and biology all work together.

I prove this every day in my own clinics. To take just one example, I show my clients how to access their autobiographical memories in a better way. By using cognitive hypnotherapy and other new techniques which build on how we now understand the brain and our mental processes, I can help create the mental map which is healthy and successful to each individual.

The mental health problems we are facing are not insoluble, increasingly we have the understanding and the tools to solve them. I like to think I am in the forefront of this movement to make us all mentally healthy. If you need help, or you are worried about your children as they head into adult life, get in contact with me. It is very likely I can help you to a happier, mentally healthier life.

Fiona Nicolson on Google+

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