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Mental health under the spotlight

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Published on 15 May 2018

Rob Graham who is supporting students with the new scheme
Rob Graham who is supporting students with the new scheme

Thousands of pounds in funding is set to help hundreds of University of Sunderland students improve their mental health through exercise.

Staff from the Institute of Sport at the University have devised a scheme which is helping boost both mental and physical wellbeing.

By taking part in walks at some of the North East’s most familiar beauty spots, the project aims to bring together students who may otherwise be struggling to cope.

As well as improving physical fitness the project helps introduce participants to a wider social group, making them more comfortable in their surroundings.

The University’s Institute of Sport has been awarded £14,869 from British Universities and Colleges Sports (BUCS) to expand the programme with the aim of helping almost 400 students by the end of this year.

Rob Graham, Sport Development Officer for the University of Sunderland, said: “This is about getting active, and getting outside – we call it Adventure Therapy.

"Students mental health is such a huge issue and we are always looking for new, innovative ways to improve overall health and wellbeing. I think this project is particularly interesting because it combines getting physically active with exploring outdoors and reconnecting with nature.

“Through hill walks and hikes, taking in some of the region’s most famous walks, we are supporting people in a number of ways.

“So much research has already shown how exercise, particularly when outside, can play a crucial role in improving mental health. But we are also keen to be pro-active, to improve people’s wellbeing in general.

“I think BUCS and Sport England should be commended for offering institutions the chance to deliver unconventional sport projects, such as ours, using sport and physical activity as a catalyst not just for improving physical health but also mental wellbeing."

The project is open to all students. It will support those presenting with mental health issues,  and those who are already being helped by the University’s Student Support Services.

University of Sunderland is just one of 12 universities who have secured a share of the BUCS funding.

Rob added: “We will be aiming to work with 373 students by the end of this year.”

Students will take part in a variety of walks at places including Lindisfarne in Northumberland, Castle Eden Dene in County Durham, Roseberry Topping in North Yorkshire, and Souter Lighthouse in Whitburn.

Tracey McKenzie, Head of Wellbeing at the University of Sunderland, said: “We are looking forward to working together, continuing to provide a personalised approach to student wellbeing.    

“This will allow is to build on our successful Exercise on Referral scheme which already demonstrates immense value and impact for our students.  

“What excites me about this new initiative is that not only will it enable us to support students in developing positive wellbeing, it will build and develop a sense of community and teamwork for individual, providing new experiences and leading to long lasting change. 

“Our beautiful North East outdoors really is ‘fuel for the soul’.

A Universities UK report found some students risked “slipping through the gap” when it came to mental health issues

However, the organisation praised the University of Sunderland for the efforts they were making to prevent this happening.

John de Pury, Assistant Director of Policy at Universities UK, said: “Universities UK published our Stepchange framework in September 2017 asking universities to take new, holistic approaches to the wellbeing of students and staff, with a particular emphasis on prevention and early intervention.

“Exercise and the social connections promoted by sports are important determinants of good mental health. It is great to see the University of Sunderland leading the way on these activities.”

The Adventure Therapy scheme has been made available through the funding BUCS received from Sport England.

Cassell Bailey, from Sport England, said: “These projects will make a valuable contribution to Sport England’s vision of a more active nation for everyone. The 12 projects will support our ambition to work and think differently to address the barriers to being more active and contribute to the Government outcomes for sport; physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, individual development, social and community development, and economic development”.

Jon Brookstein, Head of Development at BUCS, said: “This funding represents a great opportunity for institutions to come up with innovative solutions to challenges that are being felt right across the sporting landscape and we look forward to working with the universities to support their delivery over the next eight months.”

The project will be delivered by the University from the end of April through to December this year.



Making a difference:

Hadia Chaman, 24, is currently studying for an MA in Radio at the University of Sunderland.

She has already been on a number of walks with the project and is delighted to see it expanding.

 She said: “I was over the moon excited when I found the club, it is such a gem.

 “I am very fond of hiking so I had no doubt that I would be happy but the beauty of the north and the kindness of the people within the club has made me cherish these walks at another level.  

 “Every last hike is my favourite because I get to discover new places like High Force, Hadrian’s Wall and Roseberry Topping.

 “I like to be active in a fun way, I am not a gym person at all, I much prefer kayaking, indoor climbing, paddleboard, running and hiking.

 “You get to go on a little adventure every month, and that is amazing in my world. They deserve only good things, the club and everyone behind it.  

 “I have to say I am surprised more people do not join in, perhaps it is more a lack of knowledge but people are really missing out. They have no idea what they are missing out on.”


How not talking about mental health is literally killing men 


From Coronation Street to Stephen Fry – the issue of men’s mental health is firmly on the discussion table.

 The phrase “man-up” suggests that through gender alone you should be strong enough to get through the worst of times.

 But as suicide rates in young men continue to rise and health professionals express growing concerns of a male mental health crisis, how can we turn the tables and build a generation of resilient, healthier men?

 Here, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, experts from the University of Sunderland discuss why we are facing an epidemic in men’s mental health and the small but significant ways we can address it.

 In recent episodes of Coronation Street, the suicide of character of Aidan Connor, played by Shayne Ward, was watched by seven million people. The programme has helped highlight the frightening fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.

 Dr Helen Driscoll, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, said: “The fact that one of the nation’s most popular TV shows is focussing on male suicide illustrates that attention is increasingly being paid to male mental health issues. This is a positive step, but there is still a long way to go as we still often fail to realise when men are experiencing difficulties.

 “In the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 45. Many men take their own lives every single week. There are a number of reasons why young men in particular may be at risk of mental health problems and suicide.

 “One factor is that men often find it difficult to admit they are experiencing mental health problems and may suffer in silence, not seeking help. One reason for this is to do with the effect of stereotypes about masculinity.

 “A common view of masculinity is that men should be tough and emotionally resilient. This view of masculinity has an evolutionary origin because men who were dominant and tough often had reproductive success due to their ability to provide and protect.

 “This view of masculinity is evident in modern society. It has been suggested, for example, that males grow up in a ‘hero culture’, where their role models are macho superheroes. This is, however, a limited and unrealistic view of masculinity. Even though mental health problems can affect anyone, sometimes they are mistakenly seen as conflicting with this stereotypical view of masculinity. This has two consequences. One is that men are often reluctant to seek help. The other is that often we do not recognise the extent to which men can be affected by mental health difficulties.”

 Dr Driscoll believes there are other factors which are putting our young men at risk of mental health problems and suicide, including “unrealistic” images of men in the media.

 “Some of these also relate to the evolutionary history of men,” she claims. “In order to attract mates in the ancestral environment, men would compete with each other to be attractive to women.

 “Those who competed most successfully, for example, in terms of achieving high status within the group, tended to have the most reproductive success. In modern society this competition takes different forms. For example, men sometimes compete with each other by physical fighting, but often it may be competition for success in the workplace, or status within a group of peers.  

 “The problem with status however is that it is a zero-sum game – if one man achieves high status he does so at the expense of others. Losing out in competition for status or struggling to achieve it can negatively affect mental health. Added to this, whereas in the ancestral environment, men would compete within fairly small groups, now we live in a highly competitive globalised world, which means that competition for status can be very intense, and the perception of competition is exacerbated by unrealistic media images of masculinity.” 

 Dr Rebecca Owens, also a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, suggests our understanding of male mental health issues needs to be examined.

 She said: “Something we often hear is that ‘men need to talk more’…maybe they do, but this is easier said than done. On the surface, we could say ‘just talk – tell me what is bothering you’. What if they don’t know? What if they can’t find the words? What if they don’t recognise these feelings? This is partly due to the entrenched notion that men do not ask for help – they do not show emotion or weakness, they must remain strong and dominant at all times.

 “Research suggests that adherence to and endorsement of stoic norms of masculinity increase the risk of depression and suicide in men. An indicator of depression generally is withdrawal, but in men depression may look quite different. For example, men often ‘act out’ more when facing crises, perhaps as a result of a relationship breakdown or the loss of status (e.g. a job). They may engage in risky behaviours, for example, they may abuse drugs or alcohol, gamble, drive erratically, and have a very whimsical attitude and behave impulsively.

 “Clearly, immediate help is needed to raise awareness of male psychology and mental health – it is not a bad thing to acknowledge there are gender differences in certain areas.

 “This means that we can provide the right help and support as needed. One of these suggestions is that men need different forms of therapy than women do, and in some instances male-only therapy is beneficial.”

 This year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs until Sunday, is highlighting the issue of stress. Research has shown that two thirds of us experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes, and stress is a key factor in this.

 Here, Dr Paul Innerd, Lecturer in Exercise Physiology at the University of Sunderland, suggests ways to decrease stress and tells how physical and mental wellbeing are connected.

 He said: “Your mental wellbeing is essential to work productively, build good relationships and maintain healthy feelings of optimism, self-esteem, and a sense of purpose in life.

 “Depression is one of the leading causes of poor health, and according to a recent poll, 74% of people have felt so stressed in the past year they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. So what can be done?

 “Most of us here in the UK lead a lifestyle which is not good for our mental health. We study or work long hours, the longest in Europe, and when we do switch off from work, that time is often spent watching TV or using electronic smartphones or tablets. This results in very low levels of physical activity and sleep - two lifestyle behaviours which are crucial for our health.

 “Leading a physically active lifestyle improves emotional resilience and our ability to cope with stressful situations. Similarly, getting enough sleep is essential for maintaining good mood and warding off feelings of depression.

 “Research shows you don’t have to sweat it out in the gym to improve your mental wellbeing. Simply avoid long periods of inactivity, such as sitting for over five hours, and include some kind of regular physical activity, such as walking to work.

 “Improving your sleep is probably easier than you think. Certain ‘sleep stealers’ affect us all. First, avoid artificial light from electronic screens before bed. This stops the body producing a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is released in conditions of low light or darkness, so a lack of it caused by bright light means we don’t feel sleepy.

 “Second, look after your ‘sleep hygiene’. Good sleep hygiene involves having a dark, cool bedroom, taking time to relax before bed, avoiding foods like caffeine close to bed time and spending sufficient time in bed to actually get enough sleep.”


Male suicides that have drawn media attention to mental health issues in recent years include

 Chris Cornell – died May 18 2017

 Chester Bennington – died July 20 2017

 Avicii – died April 20 2018

 Verne Troyer – died April 21 2018 (suspected suicide)

 Kurt Cobain – died April 5, 1994

 Lil’ Chris – died March 23 2015

 Robin Williams – died August 11 2014


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