Oxford skyline with sunrise
Oxford skyline with sunrise

World Mental Health Day 2023: Supporting student mental health at Oxford

Jane Harris is a therapist and has been Head of the University Counselling Service since April this year. To mark World Mental Health Awareness Day, Jane reflects on the experiences of Oxford students, and the support available.

As we mark World Mental Health day and launch of Oxford’s Common Approach to Student Mental Health, I’m moved to think about the experience of being a member of Oxford’s learning community, and how this affords a unique opportunity to enhance the mental health of everyone here.

Counselling Service approach  

As a therapist and Head of the University Counselling service I spend a considerable amount of time listening to students and staff, reviewing research and sector reports, and thinking about the emotional and psychological landscapes we move through daily. It is easy for our attention to be pulled straight to the sharp point of the debate with its focus on strained and stretched NHS services and legitimate worry about those we care for waiting for specialist treatment. It is similarly easy to lose sight of the very real obstacles, challenges and barriers that face many of our students – some are visible and known, some remain out of sight and will never be shared – all possibilities must sit within our lexicon of understanding when things go wrong.

Good mental health

Today, I would like to widen out the perspective to take in the whole vista, in order to consider how living, learning and being at Oxford allows us to engage with the myriad social and emotional determinants of good mental health. The conditions with the strongest evidence base are quality education, decent work, safe neighbourhoods, healthy physical environments, positive social interactions, community cohesion, financial security and freedom from violence, abuse and discrimination. Where these are readily available, population mental wellbeing is far more robust, allowing individuals and communities to thrive.

Understanding mental health at Oxford

So how does this translate to thinking about mental health at Oxford? Reviewing this evidence has opened my eyes to just how broadly studying here affords a unique moment to be immersed in environments and activities that facilitate psychological wellbeing. Whether through living, mixing and breaking bread with other students in college, walking through University Parks, joining societies, performing, quiet contemplation, volunteering or pushing forward for social justice – there are myriad ways to enrich our lives.

Similarly, the opportunity to focus hard on subjects and projects that resonate with our values and benefit from our capabilities, to create lives grounded in a sense of meaning and purpose, expressed through our work, deeds and relationships, creates a solid foundation.

Finding support

This is in no way meant to detract from the pressures of studying and working in an elite institution and the stress, uncertainty, doubt and fears this can evoke in us all. Nor is it to dismiss the very real suffering, losses and trauma that some of our community will experience. We do not expect students to arrive equipped to manage this alone, and college welfare teams, the tutorial structure, Peer Support and professional services welcome the opportunity to come alongside you to listen, understand and provide personalised support to manage and overcome these challenges.

Shaping our own mental health

What I feel is important is that we maintain balance and perspective, and don’t lose sight of the unique way in which an Oxford education may allow students to build, refine and maintain the personal and lifestyle practices that will be protective of present and future mental health.

David Robson’s The Expectation Effect, presents compelling evidence of just how powerfully our expectations effect and shape our lived experience – from the placebo to the nocebo effect; all of which leads me to propose that recognising the positive facets of being a student here at Oxford may be an essential component of experiencing and sustaining mental wellbeing.

 Let’s celebrate this, and each other, today and always.