By Elle Haywood and Hanushka Karnani
Over the course of the year, Anglia Ruskin University’s Student Union and Student Services have been running a campaign targeted at focusing on student’s mental health as a top priority. They believe in addressing the stigma surrounding mental health head-on and create an open conversation about this invisible illness. Across the country, there has been a rise of students suffering from mental health issues which are not always being addressed or diagnosed, primarily because of the fear of judgement and lack awareness. The campaign has included running a survey and subsequently a report about the mental health of students and staff at ARU, which has helped to identify issues and causes of this. The report is incredibly significant as it presents recommendations about the provisions the university can make for those suffering and pledges about changes that should be made to improve the quality of help available.
We were invited along to the launch of the Let’s Be Honest report, which included speeches by the President of the SU Jamie Smith, the author of the report Hannah Belcher and the director of Student Services Julie Walkling. The Vice-Chancellor also skyped in from the Chelmsford campus, and there was a gallery display of mental health-related artwork contributed by students.
We spoke firstly with Jamie about her involvement in the report and how they mapped out the campaign.
“The union are firm believers that mental health is just the same as physical health, and that is really important to us. If you broke your leg or broke your arm, you would go and see a doctor. There should be no stigma around poor mental health, and you should feel able to help yourself out in the same way. We currently are recruiting for students to go on mental health first aid training, including committee members and reps. You write a 250 application about why this training would be beneficial for you in your position – and with limited spaces, we want to give it to people who can really go out to help students. All our officers at the SU are also trained in this area.”
Jamie Smith holding a copy of the report in front of student artwork portraying mental health
“So in terms of getting these recommendations implemented, the next step is a strong lobbying process. The university are quite good at supporting SU campaigns but we are asking a lot from them naturally as this is a huge crisis, and working in partnership with them is vital. We play quite a critical but friendly role, because we need to make sure the university is acting upon this report and making sure the sole focus is in the interests of their students. If they put up any barriers we will fight against those. We also want to develop the Let’s Be Honest Campaign as well as the report. Doing things such as creating advertisements, releasing these statistics to students to get them behind it. It hopefully encourages the conversation surrounding it, such as ‘yeah I’ve had poor mental health’ and stand up to help break the stigma. It’s important for students to know that everyone has gone through something and we have a shared common experience of being a student. Whilst also being individuals, we are also united in having been or as students, and issues such as fees which are a huge problem, and we should be ok talking about it.”
“We have launched something called the principles of partnership, which has been created in conjunction with the university, and essentially says that we as students shouldn’t be given a decision and asked to comment on it – students should be part of the decision making process. The report backs up this notion, because students are constantly told what they need to be, how they need to do things, when in fact students are individuals and should be able to do what works best for them.”
“The plan is for CMT to have access to all of this data, and then send out the link and PDF online. We have had so much university support from different faculties which is more than expected, and this turnout shows how important this report is. Even having the student union in a new, physical space is crucial to the welfare of students in that there is a place for people to come and feel comfortable and talk to someone. For example, just having a small front desk takes away an imposing barrier, and people can just walk in.”
A student observing some of the written artwork
This has been a huge part of Jamie’s presidency and will definitely leave a mark as a significant campaign during her tenure and the report has only just been published, which will lead the way in a progressive mental health movement throughout 2018. The walls of the SU were decked out in paintings, interactive displays, poems and graphic design work. Many people were walking around taking it in, the displays showing physical and literal representations of how it feels to cope with mental health. One of the artists there tonight, Media and Film student Milena Beyene, spoke about the different aspects of her painting, and how it was an opportunity to create art without the pressures of assessments or essays.
One of the artists, Milena Beyne, reading through the full report and plans
Next, we spoke to the Director of Students Services Julie Walkling, who has played a crucial role in the campaign so far and will continue to do so over the next few months. Her speech during the evening was uplifting and pragmatic, which she ventured into detail with when speaking to us after:
“The campaign was so refreshing; it was really nice to have a different take on mental health. It was nice to have a shared experience, as we all experience this. Not just students, but staff too – it’s all of us as people.”
“A lot of these recommendations are already in the works, the university has taken some time to consider this wonderful report, and we are always trying to make things better. We have this ethos in wanting to do more, but there are never enough resources or hours in the day to do everything we want to do. The nice thing about being in partnership with the SU and the student’s voice is that it often helps us to make a case. If the students want something, it’s better than just asking alone. We want to offer the best service possible by making as many provisions as we can and get as many resources as needed to deal with all situations.”
“We have already secured funding for three extra posts in the counselling and wellbeing department. What we are doing is recruiting for cover, but hopefully have these as permanent positions soon. We have also added two extra posts with staff this academic year through the student services and reprioritising resources. This has also included allocations for helping students who have gone through sexual violence, and may not realise at the time the impact this may have had on their mental health. It is a balance of seeking help, understanding your mental health and finding ways to deal with it in a healthy way.”
“We all have issues surrounding mental health at one time or another, more or less extreme, and there are always people there to help. You should never think that there’s something strange or unusual about you, everyone is different and there are always people there to help you.”
Co-author of the report, Hannah Belcher, stood with the director of student services Julie Walking
None of this would have been possible without the co-author of the report, Hannah Belcher, who tells the Ruskin Journal how she applied for the funding and what this means to her:
“So I got involved with this through the disabled student’s society which I led, and also set up the art therapy groups. We have been running the therapy groups for the past year, which was initially trial error but have had great success out of it. Initially, we had ten people sign up, with a few dropouts and took their scores in regards to symptoms, wellbeing, coping and functioning. By the end, they had all significantly improved. The group environment allows people to share, and there is strength in realising you are not alone. Sitting in a few of these groups, it was inspiring seeing students interact with each other, and there was an inclusive, empowering dynamic. Some students liked the mindfulness and enjoyed the art too! Others liked the group dynamic and some were just happy to come for a chat. Art is also so expressive and freeing which is a productive way to deal with their situations.”
A few pieces of artwork on display at the SU for the event
You can access the details of the report in the links below, including the statistics from students about their mental health. This report also puts forward recommendations for University Policy and Strategy, Strengthening University Services, Wider University Support and the Student’s Union / External Support. We spoke to Students’ Union officers and society member who were contributing to a group piece of artwork at the event:
Laura Douds: “As someone who has suffered with mental health, it was awful as a student. I needed more support than I knew, and I didn’t entirely acknowledge this until after three doctors’ visits. I’m so pleased that this report is out and if it had been in place when I was studying, I don’t think I would have been as bad. It’s a great start being made.”
Ben Morris: “Being a student paramedic, you see a lot of the tough situations that students go through, especially being on placement. It’s important in the SU to have a place where you can come and chill out, and this really makes a difference.”
Many people from all faculties attended the event, and officers contributed to a group design piece
This snapshot of the student experience in regards to mental health is an inspiring lead into having a broader conversation about our minds, feelings and experiences. It is a reminder that you will not be suffering these issues alone, and that all of the university services are there to help you get through your studies no matter what you may be going through. This is exemplary, and huge commendations to the individuals in this piece and to all those who are working towards improving to reduce the stigma and open up a conversation.
The full report can be accessed from the Students’ Union website.
Image Credit: Rebeka Kancsár
The information in this article is from personal experience and does not constitute professional, medical or psychological advice. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions, or if any of the issues in this article affect you.