Healthy Minds: Supporting wellbeing through university and beyond

Bristol alumnus, Ashley Dunn, is a man who’s always on the move. Currently working as a postman, he keeps his step count sky-high by delivering letters and parcels up and down the hills of Bristol. Since graduating in 2018 with a degree in Philosophy he’s also chalked up two triathlons, a half marathon and a 10K. Next year, the 30-year-old will tackle the challenge on every runner’s bucket list: the London marathon.

But running wasn’t always a way of life for Ashley. He started his fitness journey with the University’s Health Minds programme. This initiative, which started in 2016, aims to help students experiencing mental health difficulties to support their wellbeing through a bespoke exercise programme. Students benefit from the physical activity itself, but also by being paired up with a mentor – a member of the fitness team with advanced mental health training – who coaches them throughout. For Ashley, taking part gave him a much-needed boost during a very difficult time.

“I had moved down to University from Coventry in September 2015 and started having problems with my mental health pretty much straight away,” said Ashley. “I think there were a lot of underlying issues that were waiting to come out and all it needed was a change in my circumstances to trigger it.

“I was disassociated and felt completely numb. It meant I was battling with not being able to feel anything at all during first year. But following this, the real pain and difficulty of depression and anxiety started coming out.”

Ashley turned to the Students’ Health Service for support, through which he accessed services including one to one counselling sessions and group therapy. He then discovered the University’s Healthy Minds programme, which proved to be a great help to him.

“I was able to make use of a range of services for a couple of years before reading about Healthy Minds on the University website,” said Ashley. “I mentioned to my counsellor that I wanted to give it a go and they referred me straight away. I hadn’t really been into fitness before, apart from a bit of cycling, but I thought the programme might be a way for me to bring more structure into my life.”

Ashley met with his Healthy Minds mentor, Craig, who worked with him to outline a set of fitness goals and create a personalised 12-week exercise plan. This was split up into three four-week segments, which gradually stepped up in intensity. Like the other mentors on the programme, Craig was on hand to provide Ashley with professional guidance and encouragement at a time where the way he was feeling may have been a barrier to staying active.

“The programme was all very detailed and it felt like having your own personal trainer,” said Ashley. “I wasn’t just given a gym pass and left to my own devices; it was a really well-rounded service. Craig was always emailing me to share different ideas for training. He really helped me to keep my exercise going.”

As part of the plan, the pair would meet regularly to check in on Ashley’s progress and continue to develop his training plan.

“Craig and I spoke informally about my mental health when I started the programme and he used to ask me how I was doing when we met up,” said Ashley. “Having a strong focus on goals which had physical and tangible results alongside that really worked for me because it gave me something outside of my mental health struggles to think about.

“It was different to some counselling which I could find quite abstract. There, you might for instance be asked to write down your thoughts and then challenge those thoughts. Healthy Minds was more of a lifestyle change and being able to track my progress was really motivating. It gave me a real sense of purpose and ownership over myself.”

Now, despite a temporary setback in the form of shin splits, Ashley is in the midst of his London Marathon training plan. Throughout his training, he’ll be raising money for the mental health charity, Mind, and hopes that his fundraising will help to open up the conversation around mental health.

“I’m not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t been a student when I was struggling with my mental health,” says Ashley. “Mental Health services and support in general felt much more accessible at the University. There used to be drop-in sessions and I remember one time in particular, I turned up in a very distressed state and a counsellor was able to see me there and then. But when you’re out in the ‘real world’ you can be waiting for months to be seen.

“The more people that talk about mental health the better. If we want to improve mental health services in our society then the practical side of that is you need money and resources to put solutions in place. But you also need people to get involved and to keep the conversation around mental health going – that’s what forces through change.”

Ashley says that now, exercising regularly is second nature to him and that staying physically active helps him to check in with himself and monitor his wellbeing. For him, running the London Marathon isn’t just a huge indicator of how far he’s come on his fitness journey, it’s a chance for him to connect with others who might be going through a hard time:

“When you’re experiencing mental health difficulties it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one that’s going through it – which can be really scary,” said Ashley. “I hope that by talking about what I went through, it might help a current student to feel less alone and more able to seek the support they need.”

Click here to follow Ashley’s running journey and to wish him the best of luck on his London Marathon journey.

If you’ve been inspired by Ashley’s story (but aren’t quite ready for a marathon!) why not consider taking on the Great Bristol 10K on Sunday 3 May? You could even go the extra mile by joining other alumni, friends, staff and students, who will be raising money in support of the University’s Healthy Minds programme.

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