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Guest blog: Malcolm Watson on student mental health and his new self-help toolkit

At a time of increased general awareness surrounding mental health in the UK, many worrying statistics have emerged about the current state of student mental health. This is something we need to address seriously as parents, teachers, support officers, institutions, and professionals with responsibility for the wellbeing of our young people.

A recent Guardian report found that the number of students leaving university with a mental health condition has tripled in recent years, and in May of last year, the Office for National Statistics announced that student suicides were at their highest since 2007. In addition, student requests for counselling have risen by 22% in the last year to a high of 87,914. Regardless of whether this situation is due to increased awareness, the statistics give a clear indication that we need to support our students' journey more than ever before. We also need to be aware that:

  • This is only the number of people who have chosen to disclose their problems;

  • This number is likely to increase with the reduction of stigma;

  • There will likely be many more people who refuse to accept or talk about a problem, or even lack the knowledge or ability to recognise one;

  • Early intervention is key to the process of recovery, preventing escalation and the reduction of relapse rates.

While there are positive aspects to social media, evidence suggests the pressure of our digital world may be enhancing the problem rather than helping to ease it. Recently, some apps have been found to be detrimental to the wellbeing of young people — among them Instagram and SnapChat. How ironic then that many people are turning to online help and mobile apps for help with their mental health and wellbeing?

Bearing all this in mind, I took the decision to establish Discus UK, an organisation with the core objective to create a 'prevention rather than cure' approach to mental health issues. My own problems can be traced back to my education days and I am convinced that, had I been able to better manage my anxiety, my depression problems would never have been so great — and maybe would never have manifested.

In 2016, we conducted a small-scale trial with 24 individuals of an innovative new system, based around the principles of meditation and mindfulness. By utilising the practices that have become part of my daily life, we created a simple self-help tool that is fully portable, private and is non-app-based. The results were outstanding. Each participant reported an improvement in their anxiety and/or depression and all saw their stress levels reduced. Results included:

  • One person managing to return to employment;

  • One family managing to have a holiday after many years;

  • At least one person managing to support their partner as well as themselves;

  • People being able to give presentations with confidence;

  • Students managing final exam stress easier.

As a direct result of these findings, we carefully considered whether we should set about a larger scale trial. A major factor in our decision to go live straight away was not only our confidence that the system worked (as it has done for myself, and continues to do so), but that action clearly needed to be taken. Over 50% of participants came to us via word of mouth, stating that they required assistance as they were either: (a) on a long waiting list; or (b) felt they had tried other options that had failed. I took the decision that we needed to make the self-help tool available and set about the professional design that we are proud to now have available.

The Discus Traffic Light System© consists of an A4 information and instruction sheet that folds to A6 size, making it ideal for the pocket, handbag, rucksack, etc. This is supported by a credit card sized reminder that is designed to help people use the system at times of anxiety, stress, or worry without the need for the full-sized leaflet. By making it paper and card based, we have removed the challenges associated with a mobile-app based system, such as the bright LED light hindering sleep and relaxation; possible interruptions from social media; fears over privacy and anonymity; or concerns about running out of battery life or hitting your mobile data limit.

The system leaflet motivates the user to stop and make time for themselves. To evaluate clearly with their mind rather than purely their emotions. This segment also encourages the user to try a very simple breathing meditation that has proven benefits. The meditation is intentionally simple to aid the first-time user and is widely used in wellbeing lessons, meditation classes and some therapy work.

The meditation section provides graphic-based instruction that is supported by a detailed explanation of the exercise. This illustration is repeated on the reverse of the plastic card to act as a reminder or prompt. The detailed instruction is broken down into four segments: Breathe; Relax; Awareness; and Return.

Section three of the leaflet, entitled Calm, is an invitation to asses and evaluate the reasons behind the situation that brought the user to the system. This is done very gently. There are also segments that offer support and advice on a wide range of potential causes of stress, anxiety and / or depression. These are all addressed softly and with care.

The final segment, Regain, offers words of support to the user that are designed to help them manage their anxiety. It also reminds the user that people do care about them and sometimes how they are made to feel is not a burden they have to carry or react to negatively.

If you would like more information about myself, Discus UK, and our plans for other innovations, or if you feel we can support you in anyway, please e-mail me directly:

Malcolm Watson is an expert by experience. Having suffered from undiagnosed and unrecognised mental ill health into his fifties, he survived two brain haemorrhages and cancer in 2015. His professional background is in business and commerce (as well as music) but he is now 100% focused on helping others to overcome their mental health challenges and endeavouring to create a 'prevention is better than cure' approach to our mental health as a society.​

Note: The views and opinions expressed by authors of Guest Blog posts and by those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of ProtectED. Information on products or services is provided “as is” with no warranties, and confers no rights.

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