New mental health initiative at NUI Galway targets students and staff

There’s something a little bit special happening in NUI Galway. Earlier this month saw the launch of Please Talk, a mental health awareness campaign aimed at both staff and students. Mental health is something we all have, and something we all have to look after, but very often it falls way down our list of priorities, and we ignore it until suddenly something goes wrong. It’s not a subject we like to talk about, and rarely do we wait to hear the answer to the standard Irish greeting of, ‘How’s it going?’

On the rare occasions that someone does answer honestly, and admit that all may not be well, we tend to panic. We rush to fill the gap, either with platitudes, or with well meaning but not always helpful comparisons with our own situation. Or, we don’t know what to say at all. Talking about mental health can be an absolute minefield for the uninitiated.

But it doesn’t need to be! Increasingly, there is growing awareness of the need to talk about mental health, and more importantly, the need to look after our mental health. There is also recognition of the very real damage that the silence, shame and stigma associated with admitting to difficulties can do. But change is coming. In fact, change is already here, and fast gathering momentum. There are countless organisations across the country working to provide support for those who may be in difficulty, and many more working to eliminate the stigma that so often shrouds this topic.

Please Talk is one of the results of these efforts. At a national level, the campaign targets third level students only, but at NUI Galway, we’ve taken it a step further. Funded by EXPLORE, an initiative which supports staff and students at NUI Galway to collaborate and deliver new ideas, the NUIG campaign incorporates the whole campus community rather than looking at the campaign as being student specific. Stress and pressure affect every one of us at different times, and no more than the students, the NUI Galway staff are not immune.

The campaign, headed up by a small team of staff and students, working in conjunction with the Students Union, is looking at the NUI Galway community as a whole - students interacting with students, students with staff, staff with staff, staff with students. It's hard to separate the two, and really, when talking about maintaining an open and inclusive environment about mental health, it’s counter productive to work as two separate units. Yes, there are specific supports on campus for students that are not accessible for staff, as there are for staff and not students, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t cultivate a more cohesive approach to emotional wellbeing in general.

The crux of this campaign is talking - feeling able to admit to a bad day, being able to support a friend, colleague or student through a tough time, sharing and encouraging successes, and above all, remembering that mental health is something we all have. An intrinsic part of the NUI Galway campaign will be in the sharing of personal experiences on the dedicated Please Talk NUIG website. Often, all the impetus we need to start a conversation is to hear from just one person that things aren’t quite as ok as they appear to be. Judging by the work that has already appeared on the site, that is very much the case. People are not only prepared to talk, but they are prepared to share, and in that sharing, offer huge support to each other. The power of that cannot be underestimated.

It is hoped that the creation of the Please Talk hub on campus will ultimately result in a focal point for mental/emotional well-being activity in the University and act as a conduit for other groups to share their activities and events. Ideally, it will become a port of call for anyone looking for information on resources, training, and support available to all members of the NUI Galway community.

At the moment, Please Talk is funded for a period of one year only, and its survival very much depends on the co-operation of staff and students across the University. Going forward, training will be offered to those members of the NUI Galway community who wish to take a more active role in the campaign, with a view to rolling out events and initiatives in various schools and units throughout the campus. While this early stage requires a lot of drive from a small number of people, it is our intention that Please Talk will become embedded in the ethos of NUI Galway, and gain recognition as an essential tool in maintaining the emotional wellbeing of the University community as a whole.

We’re in no doubt that this will be a slow process - what we’re asking is a major cultural mindshift in a large institution. But with time, with encouragement, with training, it’s possible and NUI Galway can become an exemplar of the cultural mindshift needed nationwide. Each and every one of us has a role to play in breaking the cycle of stigma.

The national Please Talk campaign is supported by the HSE through the National Office of Suicide Prevention, and is part of the National Mental Health Strategy. Please Talk NUI Galway, while part of this larger campaign, is also funded by the NUI Galway/Students Union EXPLORE project.The EXPLORE innovation initiative supports staff and students at NUI Galway to collaborate & deliver new ideas. The first scheme of its kind in Ireland, EXPLORE was initiated by NUI Galway Students' Union & the University.

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