Why taking care of yourself makes you a better mate.
It’s 12.30am. The flat is quiet and I’m ready to call it a day. As I clear the mugs from my desk, with the last, cold mouthfuls of coffee the empty cup analogy comes to mind: You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first. How can I be there for them if I’m exhausted myself? They’re one of my closest friends at uni, someone I met at a sports social in my first year and have lived with since. My Insta is full of pictures of us together, laughing. Behind the scenes it can be different – they’re someone who I support at the lowest of times and just recently it feels like this is most days. It’s why it’s taken so long to finish this piece of work tonight, how could I stop them talking at dinner when I know they need me. I just don’t know how to get them the help they need…
In this ‘Conversations with…’, Blake speaks to Liz from the SU Advice Team about the workshops run by the SU for anyone who’s supporting a friend, housemate or colleague with their mental health.
Blake: Hi Liz, if you could pick one item that represented good mental health, what would you choose?
Liz: I think about good mental health being a bit like a pie chart where you have different sections for things you need to attend to like, having time to connect with friends, having time alone to take stock, doing something physical like yoga to help yourself mentally too and do on. Obviously what that pie chart looks like, the proportions and what’s in may vary from person to person but I like it as an image to refer to.
Blake: I’ve heard you offer training to students who are supporting their friends mental health. How does that work and what kind of issues do you discuss?
Liz: Yes, that’s right. Oli, Jess and I co-run the Look After Your Mate workshop as a collaboration between the SU and University. We talk about how to support a friend or colleague, or someone you have regular contact with, in any form. We look at how to put in boundaries around supporting somebody and tips on how to look after yourself and your own mental health while you’re supporting a friend. That part is really important.
We also talk about a bit of background to what good mental health is, and sort of what the scale of good to bad mental health, and how to maintain good mental health.
There’s also a chance to discuss what sort of issues you might want to share, how you resolved these issues in the past and how you might do things differently in future.
Blake: Has anyone asked to talk about something you weren’t expecting or an issue you didn’t know how to answer?
Liz: Sometimes people say “I had a friend with psychosis or a personality disorder and I went to various places to try and find help, but I didn’t really know where I was supposed to do”. When that happens, we signpost to other expertise and emphasise you don’t have to be the expert. We give people the tools to know what the experts do, but even then, say someone went to the University Wellbeing service, there’s actually only so much a mental health specialist can do. We can talk about that. We wouldn’t usually go that deep into one condition, but would touch on what to expect.
Even if somebody brought something we didn’t know how to answer, we’d always be able to signpost. It’s always good to be able to share a worry or an issue, we’d always be able to find someone.
Blake: Can I bring an issue to talk about? What if I’m trying to support another student, can I talk about that?
Liz: At the start of each workshop we talk about confidentiality, how everything that’s discussed has to stay within the group. If people want to talk about themselves or speak about someone else, we encourage them to anonymise names and be thoughtful about how much they are sharing about themselves.
There’s always space to talk about it, we break into small groups to talk things through.
Blake: How many people come to a workshop?
Liz: It could be up to 25, but usually smaller.
Blake: What do students enjoy most about the workshops?
Liz: I think it’s been three things. The main thing people have often said is how good it is to reiterate what they know already, the reassurance to know what they’re doing already is enough. That there isn’t something to look at and regret thinking “I should have done more”. Also acknowledging that others have been in similar situations, that you’re not alone. Also learning and acknowledging the importance of looking after your mental health and how to do that.
Blake: Is there one part of the workshop that people always want to talk about?
Liz: There’s a bit which Oli does about the mental health continuum. It shows how you might have somebody who has bipolar, but their mental health is generally very good because they control it with medication. But you might have someone who doesn’t have a diagnosed condition and their mental health is really bad because they don’t have tools to manage it. That’s an interesting one that people always want to talk about, and how we talk about comparing physical and mental health and ideas around that.
Blake: If someone isn’t ready to come to a workshop, what advice would you give to them to support a friend with their mental health?
Liz: In general, remembering to listen. It isn’t always an easy thing. Even if that’s the only thing you do, it can be the hardest. People always jump in with advice rather than listen.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe just go and do a bit of research about what other support is out there, so you don’t feel you’re alone in supporting them. One tip would be to put some boundaries in, we go into the details of how to do this in the workshops but you could start to think about knowing your own boundaries. What do you feel comfortable supporting them with? How much time do you have to support them, which sounds a bit cold, but what are the limits of your support? This is really important.
Blake: Thanks Liz, how do I sign up to a workshop?
Liz: The workshops are always posted on the SU What’s On page. There’s a workshop on the 13 October just for PGRs (postgraduate researchers) and we’ll be sharing details soon about the workshop on the 9 November, which will be open to everyone.
The Look After Your Mate workshops are produced by Student Minds, a charity registered in England and Wales. For more information about the University of Bath Student Minds Group, check out the Student Minds webpage.