Beginning Monday 20th January, Royal Holloway’s student union is running its annual Mental Health Awareness week.
Everyone who has ever been a student knows of the stresses it brings – for most, it will be the first time they have lived away from home for a significant period of time. Every day brings countless new opportunities that can be at best exciting, most likely bewildering, and at worst frightening. Academic deadlines, fluctuating relationships with house-mates, managing finances and a heavy work-load are things the average student will have to deal with at some point. Yes, lots of us go through it, but that doesn’t mean the accompanied stress is anything to be dismissed. Instead, it should be recognised as an endemic issue that can lead to a lot of students’ mental health suffering.
Two of our sabbatical officers, Sidonie Bertrand-Shelton (VP Education and Welfare) and Jamie Green (VP Communications and Campaigns)have headed up organisation of the weeks events. I was able to speak to both of them about why they feel it’s such an important topic for SURHUL to focus on, and why many people still find it difficult to talk about mental health issues. Last year, as SURHUL’s Equality and Liberation Officer, Sidonie was instrumental in organising the ‘Let’s Talk About Mental Health’event. I asked if there were any personal experiences that had inspired her passion for mental health. “I’ve always been interested in people, in understanding where they’re coming from and helping them; that’s why I studied Psychology here. Throughout my life, people close to me have had mental health issues. It’s so much harder when it’s a friend or family, and you’re not just reading about the illness from a textbook. On a personal note, Christmas time in my final year was an especially hard time, I found everything hard to manage and I was crying all the time. I realised how few people asked “How are you?” and took the time for a proper reply.” “Working with and around Mental Health Awareness Week came at just the right time – I met fantastic students with struggles of their own, and they all recommended going to the counselling service here. I coped much better after that. I was never diagnosed and it was a period of about three months of being really confused about what was happening to me. Only recently I heard someone talk about mental health issues as something that can happen over a brief period or a lifetime, and I realised that maybe what happened to me counted too. I don’t know, but I do know that the people who deal and cope with mental health are incredible and they inspired me to get help when I was ‘wobbling’.”
Both talked about about how mental health issues are not an uncommon occurrence, with Jamie explaining how recent statistics have reflected this. ‘Mental issues affect a high amount of people – a recent NUS survey showed 20% of students suffer from a mental illness, with 92% saying that they have had feelings of mental distress during their studies.’Sidonie added, ‘It affects one in four of all of us. That’s not only people at university, but people back home, your neighbours, your friends.’ (1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year.) Despite this high rate, many people still struggle with talking about their issues and worry about being understood and accepted by society. Sidonie explained how a lot of people still distinguish between mental and physical health, as though the former is somehow less worthy of attention and kindness. “Having a broken leg, people understand that you’re unwell and need to recover, and we’re fighting for mental health to be seen the same way. It has been said that sometimes the social stigma is so stressful that it’s worse than the illness itself. I really feel that it our responsibility, as the upcoming generation, to be challenging norms and having discussions.” “We are all afraid of what we don’t know enough about, and mental health will not be one of those for much longer. We just need to talk. To be honest about our experiences as sufferers, or friends/ family/ partners/ house mates. Once we start talking, we will become accepting and supportive. That’s what every ill person needs; broken leg or not.” Jamie added: “Society, I believe, is slowly coming around to the idea that it’s okay to talk about mental health, which has been helped with the recent wave of celebrities and politicians ‘coming out’ as having an illness. For me, writing a blog about my depression and anxiety was a great way to begin normalising such discussions.” I asked Jamie what events will be held during the week, and how students can get involved. “We have a series of events throughout the week such as talks, information stands, mental health pledge making, videos, blogs and more. We’ve tried to get a nice mix of events with things people can consume at home (eg videos) as we appreciate not everyone may feel comfortable with coming to a talk, for example. Students can get involved by writing a blog about their own mental health experiences, coming to a talk, or contacting myself to get involved with running a stall or making a pledge.” Whilst this week in particular focuses on mental health, SURHUL and college offer support all year round. I asked Sidonie what resources are available for students here. “The university offers plenty of resources. The counselling service in Founders Building are incredible, and award winning in their service. You can go if you’re finding things tough, even if you’re not sure why. If you’re stuck about where to begin seeking help, that’s probably the best place to begin. There’s also Tina in the SU Advice & Support Centre, where you can have a quick chat and she can point you in the right direction.” “The college offers plenty more support for this that may be indirectly affecting your or a friends mental health – for example, there is money available if you’re short on rent and it’s stressing you out, and support available if your living arrangements are stressful. If you’ve been diagnosed as having a mental health issue, the college Educational Support Office can help you secure extra funds and learning resources.”