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Relationships and a safe community promote study ability

Support for mental health is often focused on individuals, while social relationships – or the lack thereof – have a profound influence on our well-being. The student community has an important role: not only does it fulfil social needs, it also helps students to commit to their studies.

As a resource, the student community can help maintain a student’s mental health. We organised a webinar during Students’ Mental Health Week, held on 8–14 April 2024, with the focus on equality and social accessibility.

“When we talk about social accessibility, we’re referring to an acceptance and appreciation of human diversity that can be seen in words and actions in the community,” explained Influencing Specialist Tommi Yläkangas from Nyyti ry, the organisation responsible for coordinating the Mental Health Week. “In a community that takes social accessibility into consideration, everyone has an equal opportunity to participate.”

Yläkangas also mentioned that his organisation had been notified of some 40 events for Student’s Mental Health Week, demonstrating that this year’s theme attracted plenty of interest.

Building considerate communities pays off

“Studies show that one-third of students report feeling anxious or depressed and one-quarter report feeling lonely, and mental health problems have become the most common reason for work disability among young adults. Such high numbers indicate that promoting mental health cannot only mean supporting the individual,” said psychologist Julia Sangervo about the current situation in student welfare. We invited Sangervo to participate in the webinar to provide a psychologist’s point of view on social accessibility.

“Our culture, with its unrelenting demand for achievement, adds to a sense of shame caused by loneliness, and our busy lifestyle doesn’t really promote a sense of community either,” said Sangervo. She also reminded the audience that in the best-case scenario, social relationships and a community where everyone can feel good support ability to work and to function effectively.

“Attachment to a study community may even prevent burnout and dropout in higher education students,” Sangervo argued. “In an uncertain world, the surrounding community’s support can have a far-reaching impact. So it’s no trivial matter that communities devoted to students’ free-time activities should function successfully. Efforts to promote these communities can have a great effect.”

No one single mould for students

The event’s chat was busy with students sharing their thoughts on social relationships during studies. This brought to light several groups of students who may be having trouble finding their place in their study community.

Students that don’t consume or consume very little intoxicants

The alcohol consumption typical of student culture can discourage some from participating in student activities. A lot of bonding happens outside of study environments, for instance during pub crawls organised by student associations, so students who don’t feel comfortable participating in such activities may feel left out.

Older students

Not all students are young adults with no children. Older students with families who are changing profession may feel that student events are not meant for them. When your life involves working, studying and taking care of children all at the same time, maintaining existing relationships may receive little attention and building new relationships can be difficult.

Students who feel nervous or stressed about social situations

Many students describe how factors such as being bullied earlier in life, a social anxiety disorder or an anxiety disorder, and other mental health challenges may make it difficult to establish contacts with fellow students. Various forms of neuroatypicality and some chronic medical conditions may also make social situations stressful, resulting in students having to limit their participation.

How to build a more accepting student community

Student communities should take special groups into consideration and organise enough substance-free events to which students can bring their children. And those suffering from social insecurity can feel easier if the community has adopted safer safe principles and openly communicates this. Sangervo gave participants a tip: the National Union of University Students in Finland’s website includes a good model for putting these principles into practice. She also reminded those working with students that they should regularly question their own assumptions about what a typical student is like.

Other ways of creating a more equal study culture highlighted by Sangervo included using contact persons appointed for matters related to harassment, proactive communications about special arrangements, such as calm spaces, at events, and low-threshold events for first-time participants.

Roosa Kämäräinen, a psychologist in charge of study community work at the FSHS and the person responsible for organising and hosting the webinar, suggested that the audience also check out the ”Psychosocial study environment” section of the Model for ability to study. The model sets out further actions for improving social accessibility in higher education institutions.

During Students’ Mental Health Week, we also published tips for organising more inviting student events and for fighting unwanted loneliness. Check them out on our page “70 tips for good health”.