Interview by Stuart Graham & Cameron Watson
Answers by Jamie Grant
Q – What made mental health so important to your campaign when running for the Union’s VP Communities position?
A – I suppose because mental health affects everyone. Having negative mental health affects you, it affects others, it affects society, it affects the campus. One of my soundbites in my campaign was that healthy students are active students. Healthy students are going to be productive and will get better grades, and that’s better for the university.
So I was trying to frame it in that way, so that the university understands that it is not just people crying in the corner. It’s actually a really serious issue and if they sorted it, it would sort the university’s reputation and also its performance standards. That’s why I thought it was really important to highlight it. It is also a very politically salient so a lot of people now realise that it’s a serious problem and it was obviously important to address that in the campaign.
Q – What are you aiming to achieve in office in regards to awareness around mental health?
A – So Astrid [new Union president] and I have had a brief conversation on this because obviously we are not in post yet until June 1, but really Astrid’s idea was to continue Dave’s [outgoing Union president] “Elephant in the Room” campaign and I’m supportive of that idea.
I’d also like to speak to support services. That was a part of my manifesto. Some of my opponents wanted to do a lot of work with the support services, like move them into the union, and I opposed that because there had been a rebrand and I thought it would be better to work with them rather than smash it up. So I will be speaking to them once in post and seeing what’s wrong.
Perhaps there is an underlying problem that we don’t know about and that’s why they are not able to deliver services. It’s just working with stakeholders to see what things we can come up with. I think there is another councillor in the works – Astrid is doing work on that at the moment and obviously another councillor would help. But it’s also realising it’s a bigger problem than just the university. So the university has an obligation of care to provide councillors and provide facilities, but there is also the NHS people can go to. Third sector charities and the NHS are under unprecedented cuts and pressure, so that’s just exacerbating the issues that students have.
So it is a messy situation that goes beyond the scope of the sabbatical officers, but that’s not so say we can’t do anything about it. We can push for more counselling and more transparency within that counselling because there have been complaints about confidentiality that I can take on board.
Q – The university currently don’t have the power to prescribe medication for mental health issues. Do you think they should have that power or do you think when it gets to a stage when medication is called for it should be referred onto the NHS and they shouldn’t hold that power?
A – Well, I won’t pretend to be an expert on mental health. I think it’s disingenuous to pretend I am. At the union’s clubs academy this year, one of the members of union staff was talking about how the GP is your portal to medication and professional help. So the university is professional in the sense as their councillors are geared towards academic needs. But if it is getting to the level where medication is required then it should go to the NHS.
We have a pharmacy on campus, but that isn’t a part of the university as it is an independent chain, and it gets into dangerous territory when you start giving the university power to give you meds. Especially because that gives the university access to your medical records and they can start joining dots and saying “Well, you chose not to take the meds so you get bad essay grades because of that”. It lays the blame on the victim, whereas the NHS has got their own confidentiality agreements and it’s best to leave it to the professionals rather than a university that’s already stretched.
Q – During the elections people voiced issues with confidentiality within the student support hub. What measures are you going to take to improve this service while in office?
A – So my understanding of the issue is the reason there was a confidentiality problem was the layout of the office. So you walk up to the counter and you basically have to tell them what the problem is then and there, so if there is a queue or there are people waiting in the seats it’s not very confidential. I really don’t know why that was a thing in the first place because they are councillors.
But it could be something as simple as putting up screens or a bit of tape on the floor to say don’t stand beyond this point, so will put people out of earshot to discuss with the person at reception what the problem is. In terms of confidentiality in the broader sense I’m sure they are confidential, and that they don’t share information if you don’t want them to. But I think that particular point was about the office space being misused so it looks like a fairly straightforward fix to me.
Q – In the last year there has been some student-led organisations that try to tackle mental health stigma and other relevant issues. What do you think these things offer in terms of being student-led as opposed to councillor-led and do you think there are any disadvantages to them?
A – I’ve always said that when you come to university, especially in my case – I only knew one person and not very well – you need to build up a friend group and the best way to do that is through a club or society. They become your informal social support network.
Having a network that is specifically geared towards being that support network relieves the pressure on student support services so you can have what is essentially preventative care. So you have people who are feeling down and they are picked back up by these societies and it stops it becoming such a big problem that they then need professional help. So these societies play a vital role.
I do wish the university would work a bit more with them. I know that the mental wellbeing society struggled a bit this year with their AGM because they didn’t have adequate attendance and that to me points to a poor engagement strategy. They could work with the union and the university a bit more and have that informal first layer. So if you are having problems there is that student-led support there, and if not you can go to the next tier which is the support services, and if not them then the NHS. That would relieve pressure on all the tiers. It means that people who need to get serious treatment can get the serious treatment and those with beginning symptoms can get seen informally and it doesn’t become a serious issue.
Q – How do you intend on utilising your role as VP Communities to progress how the union itself and the university deals with those students who are already struggling with mental health?
A – As I’ve said, making it student-led at the society level and working with student support services to have a service that reflects the needs of students. Something like 25% of people suffer from mental health in general in the country. That’s higher typically in students – around 35-40% – so there is a pressing need for it. But really talking to the university and trying to really hit home that this is an economic issue, this is a PR issue and this is a wellbeing issue.
I want to try and get the university to take it seriously. It will improve the university’s image to tackle mental health problems as it will increase productivity in students which will help us in the league tables, increase engagement and also just improve the wellbeing of the campus.
I don’t know how they could come back and say, “No, that’s not a thing we could do”. Even looking at it in really cynical economic terms, if you spend a couple of thousand pounds on a new councillor, service or campaign and that stops a student harming themselves, or it stops a student having to drop out, then that is money saved in terms of reputational damage and also a wasted course or a wasted place. So it makes sense to me to provide preventative care and a little bit of money at the start, as it goes a long way in preventing these problems.
Q – The university recently constructed two study pods in one of the Cottrell courtyards. Do you think spending money on things like high tech study pods is justified when mental health is such a prevalent issue for student wellbeing?
A – Well, I’ve certainly not been consulted on it in my previous role as communities officer. I’ve not heard anything from the union about it. So it seems like a university-led attempt. I’d say there is wastage in places of the university and you could ask why these funds are being spent here. I suppose what the university’s line would be is that these spaces encourage social learning; it’s maybe a place to relax; it will improve mental health; you have a place to have a breather. So that’s what their line on it would be. Personally, I’ve not even looked at them yet. I don’t know how much they cost so couldn’t yet make a judgement or whether it was or wasn’t justified.
Q – Do you believe that union staff, volunteers, or Sabbatical officers should receive more training about the issue of mental health and be encouraged to speak more actively around the topic?
A – I’d say in regard to mental health training I was lucky enough last semester to take part in the Mental Health first aid training. That was an initiative led by Alban Dickson, the union’s activities and volunteer co-ordinator. There was five or six people in that training, and then they went and dispersed those skills in their committee.
It was really cost effective as well as only one person in the union was trained to be a trainer and they were able to pass on that training essentially for free. So initiatives like that really do pass on the hard skills you need to deal with mental health problems and stop them becoming bigger issues – even if it is just being a friend to someone and knowing how to listen non-judgementally. Those were the skills I took from it and it really has helped in every day life, even just listening to people and making sure they are okay.
Q – Do you think then that more society committees should be encouraged to go through training like this?
A – I’d say advertise it more and get more societies on board. It’s definitely something I would encourage anyone to do because it gives you a new perspective on mental health.
Q – Should there be more places within the university or the union itself more tailored for those who suffer from mental health issues?
A – I think this leads into a wider issue of study space. The problem with space is that the union building – so everything from the big green doors onwards – is almost at capacity. There is no space left, and there are people crammed into offices. There is space in the atrium where the tables and chairs are stored and I wanted to utilise that, but I was then told the international office had dibs on that.
In regards to where students can study individually, the library is always a problem because it’s always full. I know that Astrid is working on some sort of system that allows to you see what rooms outside the library are free to study in which I think is a great idea. That way you can find a room to yourself. The study zone is quite a noisy environment and if you had any anxiety issues it would push you to avoid that as it is very roudy. It’s difficult enforcing a silence rule in the 24 hour zone as there is no member of staff and to pay for an extra member of staff would just be extra expenditure. Maybe these study pods might help to find a quiet space.
Q – Would you say there are any aspects of student union activity that could be seen as negative or containing some risk for people’s mental health?
A – I think anything you do in life carries a risk and you need to look at the pros and cons. I would say being part of a club or society could be a risk to your mental health, but it is also a benefit as you have that social support and you have that sort of purpose.
When I was down last semester, I was not feeling very well; the society was really good for me as it was something to take my mind off things and focus all my energy into. I should have really focused on my degree … but you learn. So I think from that aspect it’s tricky because it can be stressful on you to run events and manage people, so it was frustrating at times. But I think on the whole clubs and societies and union engagement promotes positive mental health because it provides a purpose for a lot of people.
Q – On a more personal note, when you hear the phrase mental health what are the first words that usually come into your head?
A – I would say struggle, because a lot of people struggle with it. It is very personal for a lot of people. I’m kind of stuck in this sort of conflict that I feel that people can speak about it quite openly, and that’s fantastic and really brave of them, but then if politicians speak about it openly I can be very cynical about that because I think they’re just exploiting the human element of this to try and relate to potential voters.
So that’s why on the campaign I was very cautious to try strike that balance and not delve too deeply into my own personal experience with mental health because I don’t want to seem preachy and don’t want to be seen as belittling the subject. But what I will say is that it is a struggle, and it does get better. There will be troughs and there will be highs, but I think if you surround yourself with good people and you try to do good things you can get through it relatively unscathed.
Q – We have been asking people what made you come forward for this interview but given we contacted you about doing this, what made you agree to do this interview and be involved in this project?
A – I remember that I took part in the Speak Your Mind campaign back last semester and Dave told me that they were looking for volunteers – do you want to put your face on a poster and talk a little about mental health? So I think doing interviews like this will let people know that the union is taking it seriously, as well as the university. Letting people know they are not alone, that’s the best thing you can do as an elected official. That this is not a struggle you are going through alone and that makes people feel a lot better about it. It certainly made me feel a lot better about it, just talking to friends and knowing they are feeling the same as me. It gives you that sense of solidarity that this isn’t going to be the end of the world and we can get through it.