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Callum O'Neill

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Early concerns

As a family, we had always wondered if our eldest son was neurodivergent. We picked up on a few early signs, but we were never certain, as we often thought his behaviour was typical of boys - especially one who had endured the challenges of COVID-19 lockdowns.

ADHD was first suggested as a possibility by my son’s teacher when he was six years old. He had trouble sitting still in the classroom, was easily distracted, found it difficult to follow instructions, and fidgeted often. He would also steal Blu-tack from classroom displays so that he had something to fiddle with!  

We also noticed similar challenges at home, with my son finding it difficult to concentrate on daily tasks, showing frequent hyperactive behaviour, and having difficulty with regulating his emotions. However, we could not pursue a formal diagnosis until he turned seven years old.

Making this stage easier:

  • During this time, I found it helpful to have an initial meeting with my son’s school. Together, we discussed his challenges at school and implemented some strategies to help him as we waited for a formal assessment. For instance, he was allowed to have fidget toys to play with in the classroom to channel his excess energy more productively.
  • I also wrote down as much information as I could about my son’s strengths, challenges, and neurodiverse traits so that I had these ready for the assessment process.

The assessment process

When we first started the screening and assessment journey, I felt relieved that we may finally get access to the appropriate support for my son and have a greater understanding of his daily needs. When filling out the initial screening questionnaire, I had much greater clarity about how my son's brain worked. With each recognisable statement, things became clearer.  

My child's school also filled out the screening questionnaire, and together, these results enabled us to pursue a formal assessment. During the next stage of my son's assessment, we provided greater detail about his childhood and developmental background, as well as the daily challenges and signs of ADHD that he faced. Receiving a diagnosis of ADHD has enabled us to put the support mechanisms into place that our son requires.

Tips for navigating this stage:

  • Be open and honest with the medical professionals conducting the assessment, and don't be afraid to ask questions or voice any concerns you may have.
  • Remember that you know your child best, and your input is invaluable in forming an accurate diagnosis and support plan.  
  • Find out as much as you can about ADHD and the assessment process. By staying informed, you will be better equipped to advocate for your child and make important decisions about their treatment.  
  • Be accurate and honest when filling out assessment questionnaires, and use past documentation, if required, to jog your memory about developmental milestones.
  • Speak to other parents who have been through a similar experience for practical and emotional support.  
  • Work closely with your child’s school during the assessment process. Keep the school updated on the progress and any diagnosis or support plans that are put into place.

Talking to your child about their ADHD assessment

Explaining the ADHD assessment process to my son proved challenging, but we had always felt that it was important to keep him fully informed along the way. We had a conversation with him about what was happening and used age-appropriate and neuroaffirming language. We focused on the strengths and positives of his characteristics rather than highlighting any perceived weaknesses.

Based on my experience, here are some practical tips to consider when talking to your child about their ADHD assessment:

  • Start by creating a safe and non-judgmental space for your child to talk to you about their thoughts and feelings.
  • Use simple and plain language to explain ADHD and the assessment process to your child. The language you use must be appropriate for the age of your child.  
  • Always use neuroaffirming language when speaking to your child, focusing on their strengths and abilities instead of talking about “symptoms” and “deficits.”
  • Encourage your child to ask any questions and express any concerns they may have about the ADHD assessment process, and practice active listening as they talk to you.
  • Remind your child that you are there to support them every step of the way and that they can always come to you with any questions or concerns.

In my experience, speaking to my son openly about his ADHD has enabled him to become an advocate for both himself and his neurodivergent peers!  

Final thoughts

Going through the ADHD assessment process has given me the opportunity to learn more about neurodivergence and the strengths and challenges that come with it. It has also helped me to better understand my son, and shown me how to adapt my parenting style to suit his unique needs. Remember that the assessment process is designed to help your child receive the support they need, so try to approach it with an open mind and a willingness to learn.

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Mental health at university

Find out how talk therapy can improve your university experience
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Common mental health challenges at university

University life brings new experiences and challenges that can affect students' mental health. Some common mental health issues that students might face while studying at university include:

1. Anxiety

Students may feel overwhelming worry about exams, presentations, or social interactions, leading to symptoms like rapid heartbeat, sweating, and avoidance behaviours. For example, a student might experience panic attacks before a test or skip classes altogether due to social anxiety.

2. Depression

A student might lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, struggle with low energy, or have difficulty concentrating on assignments, which can significantly impact academic performance.

3. Stress

The pressure to maintain good grades, secure internships or jobs, and plan for a career post-graduation can lead to chronic stress. This can manifest in both physical and psychological symptoms, such as headaches and irritability.

4. Sleep disturbances

Due to late-night studying or socialising, a student might develop irregular sleep patterns, leading to daytime fatigue and reduced academic performance.

5. Disordered eating

The desire to fit in or cope with stress might lead a student to adopt harmful eating habits, such as skipping meals or binge eating, which can have serious health consequences.

6. Substance misuse

To deal with pressure, a student might start drinking heavily during social events or using drugs, which can lead to dependency.

7. Isolation

International students or those far from home may struggle with loneliness, finding it hard to make connections in a new environment, which can exacerbate other mental health issues.

These issues can be managed through talk therapy, where experienced practitioners can create a safe space for students to navigate their challenges and find support strategies.  

Types of talk therapy on campus

Universities offer various forms of counselling to cater to the diverse needs of their students. Here are some commonly provided practices:  

  • Individual therapy. One-on-one sessions with a therapist where students can discuss personal challenges privately.
  • Group therapy. Facilitated sessions with groups of students who share similar experiences, providing a sense of community and mutual support.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). A structured approach that helps students identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours.
  • Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). A therapy that focuses on teaching emotional regulation, mindfulness, and interpersonal effectiveness skills.
  • Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). A specialised therapy used primarily for trauma, helping students process and integrate traumatic memories.
  • Counselling. General counselling services that offer support with academic, career, and personal issues.
  • Psychoeducation. Groups or workshops that provide information on mental health topics and teach coping strategies.
  • Crisis intervention. Immediate assistance for students in psychological distress or experiencing a crisis.
  • Peer counselling. Support services run by trained student volunteers who offer a relatable perspective and empathetic ear.
  • Mindfulness and stress management. Programmes designed to help students learn how to manage stress and anxiety through mindfulness techniques.  

Benefits of talk therapy for students

Talk therapy offers a range of benefits, positively impacting both the mental health and academic performance of university students. The benefits are numerous:

  • With the guidance of their practitioner, students are free to articulate their emotions, such as addressing homesickness or expressing fear about the future. Talk therapy can assist with understanding and communicating these feelings rather than letting them fester.
  • For a student grappling with procrastination, CBT can help unravel negative self-talk and replace it with motivational thoughts, leading to a more productive approach to coursework.
  • DBT offers students, perhaps overwhelmed by exam stress, techniques like mindfulness and distress tolerance, which help in maintaining calm and focus during high-pressure periods.
  • EMDR can be a critical tool for students dealing with past traumas, enabling them to process distressing memories and concentrate on their present studies and campus life.
  • After engaging in talk therapy, students often experience a boost in confidence, which might inspire them to take on new challenges, such as leadership roles in campus organisations.
  • Therapy can enhance a student's ability to communicate with peers and professors, leading to more enriching academic collaborations and personal relationships.
  • As mental health improves, so does academic performance, evidenced by more active class participation and a proactive approach to complex projects.
  • A previously introverted student may find the confidence through therapy to join social groups and activities, fostering a sense of belonging and community on campus.
  • Self-reflection encouraged in therapy sessions can lead to significant personal insights, prompting life-changing decisions like changing a major to pursue a true passion.

Common obstacles to seeking help at university

Students may face several challenges when seeking mental health support at university. However, there is always a way to navigate these obstacles.

  1. Stigma

The stigma associated with mental health treatment is a significant barrier. Many students fear being judged, misunderstood, or labelled with stereotypes. However, seeking therapy is a sign of strength and self-care.

  1. Lack of awareness

Many students are unaware of available resources and the importance of mental health care, delaying their access to support. While it is the responsibility of your university to ensure that wellbeing resources are made accessible to students, it’s likely that information is readily available on their website.

  1. Financial constraints

Cost can be a significant barrier for students. Affording therapy sessions or necessary medications can feel impossible, which is why most universities will offer free counselling. Many private counselling practices will also offer heavily subsidised sessions if you can show proof of being a student.

  1. Long waiting times

University counselling centres might have limited staff and high demand, leading to longer wait lists. This delay can discourage some students from pursuing treatment. However, it's always worth investigating, because wait lists can often move more quickly than expected.

  1. Balancing academics

The demanding nature of university life leaves little time for personal commitments like therapy sessions. Finding a balance can feel like a challenge. But most courses of counselling only take up half an hour per week, and practitioners will likely be willing to fit sessions around student schedules.

What we offer at ProblemShared

ProblemShared was founded to enhance access to the highest quality mental healthcare and neurodevelopmental support. We are here to support university counselling services across the UK meet the growing demand for care.

Our community of exceptional practitioners are available to provide capacity, diversity, and additional specialisms to in-house student counselling services.    

For more information, you can explore our university webpage.