Healthy Minds | Exploring the relationship between exercise and mental health

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By Robin Connolly, Features Editor

Epigram speaks to Charlotte Jones about her experience using the Healthy Minds scheme available to students at the university, how it has helped her and about why she has subsequently become an adovate for it.

Since its genesis in 2016, the Healthy Minds programme has done nothing but grow, both in terms of the finance available for it and the support it has received. Over 400 students have now been through the programme. The average improvement in wellbeing is reported by the University to be at 30% over the course of the 12-week programme, a figure that is worked out according to the same criteria the NHS use to determine success of mental health treatments.

I caught up with Charlotte Jones, who joined the scheme two years ago after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety during her third year of University. Charlotte has gone on to be a mentor with, and advocate for, the programme. She explained to me how she ‘hated sport growing up’, due to struggling with asthma, but through healthy minds realised ‘it does help you, sort of, live a normal life,’ ‘you know, we're built to move around.’

The average improvement in wellbeing is reported by the University to be at 30% over the course of the 12-week programme

The programme is run by the University’s Sport Exercise and Health Department (SEH) and encourages the use of sport and exercise facilities (free during the programme), including the pool, gym, social sports and exercise classes to help combat issues with mental health. The student receives support from a mentor, as well as regular meetings to track their progress throughout their time on the programme.

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Charlotte Climbing | Courtesy of Charlotte Jones

Charlotte’s mentor from the programme, Peter Burrows, has sung her praises, stating that ‘Charlotte is a standout example of everything that is good about the scheme. I feel really privileged to be a small part of her journey and would assert that all her successes have come directly from her own hard work, bravery and commitment.’

The student receives support from a mentor, as well as regular meetings to track their progress throughout their time on the programme

Interested to hear more about the relationship between mentor and student, Charlotte explained to me how they’re not trained counsellors, but are very good at making your exercise schedule fit in with you. She explained that for her, Peter made completely sure he wasn’t doing anything to stress her or cause anxiety, as sports facilities can often be daunting places, ‘If you’ve never used the gym before, you get in there and there’s all these machines and it can literally be like – I have no idea what I’m doing!’

She also added a piece of advice to anyone thinking about doing the scheme – ‘make more use of the swimming pool – I was always too anxious, I would worry about how fast I could swim!’ but that ‘having done it since, I don’t know what I was worried about.’

Charlotte revealed to me that not only did Healthy Minds help her while she was on the programme, but that she has kept up exercising ever since, including running as well as branching into new, more adventurous realms including climbing and even doing some surfing in the summer. ‘It’s definitely given me a lot more confidence with all the other sports, which is nice. I’ll play with my work colleagues and stuff now and not feel as weird.’

‘If you’ve never used the gym before, you get in there and there’s all these machines and it can literally be like – I have no idea what I’m doing!’ Charlotte Jones

As someone who has gone through the scheme and worked with it since, Charlotte is knows Healthy Minds inside and out. She expressed to me that there are ways that the programme could be developed, perhaps through a way of easing students out. ‘I was quite lucky, I got to stay around the people who were helping me,’ but she contemplated that it might be difficult if you left the scheme unsure of what to do next. She suggested a shared support group for those who have been through it, so people can stay in contact and motivate one another post-programme.

This aside, Charlotte was very positive about the programme, and emphasised that Healthy Minds provided her with ‘skills I’m always able to come back to, that are always going to help,’ even suggesting that it was the exercise that helped get her off her medication.


Charlotte’s advice for students in a similar situation to hers:

·       As everyone says, do not be afraid to seek support and try new things if one thing isn’t helping. For example, medication can help many people but wasn’t the solution for me.

·       Try and get into a routine. I found the lack of routine associated with university in general to catalyse my depression, and only set on the road to recovery when the gym helped establish a regular routine. Try and spend nine to five in University, even if it’s just the library – sometimes it’s better to treat it as a full-time job.

·       Be honest with your doctors and counsellors and the University so they can accommodate you with things like extenuating circumstances to give you extensions etc.

·       Be careful with alcohol and caffeine consumption.

·       Always, always talk to someone - whether it’s your department, counsellor, a family member or housemate.


It seems to me that the Healthy Minds Programme has a lot of potential to help people and is exploring new avenues for recovery. It is time we started thinking more deeply and creatively about how we look after ourselves - Healthy Minds is certainly a step in the right direction.

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If you or anyone you know needs help with issues surround mental health, or think they may be eligible for the Healthy Minds programme, contact the Student Wellbeing Service on: student-wellbeing@bristol.ac.uk or +44 (0)117 428 4300.

Featured: Courtesy of the University of Bristol


Have you been a part of the Healthy Minds initiative? Tell us your thoughts.

AUTHOR

Robin Connolly

Was once told that writing is the only thing I'm good at. Still working out whether or not that's a compliment.