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Union President Astrid Smallenbroek – Mental Health Q&A

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Photo Credit: Stirling Students’ Union

Questions by Stuart Graham & Cameron Watson
Answers by Astrid Smallenbroek

Q- Why did you feel mental health was so important to your campaign?

A- On a personal level I know a lot of people who have struggled with mental health while at university, and I know that a lot of them have gone to the counselling services and there have been ridiculous waiting times and the services haven’t handled their issues appropriately. But also on a wider level I know that mental health issues are becoming more recognisable and more people are seeking help, so I think that it’s really important that we have services in place on a timely basis so that it doesn’t escalate and get worse and worse. Also, Stirling does have a reputation as being a university with a high suicide rate, so I definitely think that is something that we need to work to fix.

Q- What are you aiming to achieve next year in regards to awareness around mental health?

A- I think Dave’s “speak your mind” and “elephant in the room” campaigns have been really good because they have opened up conversations about mental health and taken away the stigma surrounding it. I would be keen to work more on campaigns like that, and encourage open and healthy discussion about mental health to continue to remove the stigmatisation. I know that when I was in my second year I started getting mental health problems, and was very fortunate to have a group of friends that were very understanding, but I know that that isn’t always the case. I have a friend back home who is currently experiencing mental health issues, but it took him months to figure out what was wrong because he just didn’t have that support system in place. He didn’t have those friends that offered open conversation, and I’m sure other people in Stirling have also experienced that, so I just feel very fortunate to have had that group of friends who were very open about it. So I think that is a very important factor to work on, it’s about making sure stigmatisation isn’t surrounding mental health anymore so we can have those conversations and we can enable people to seek help as early on as possible.

Q- What do you know that the uni already does regarding mental health struggles for students and do you think there is anything else that could be done right now?

A- I know the university has a counselling service; they have the drop-in sessions. But I’m not sure if they are doing any more than that. I know that they are quite reluctant to work as that support as they aren’t an actual mental health service. I understand that, but I also think that they have a duty of care, and really need to step up their game in regards to mental health.

Q- Currently there is one counsellor and they were looking to get two, do you think two is enough?

A- So there’s currently one that works full time and one that works part time. We did have another counsellor but she has left, so the money’s there. It’s just convincing the uni that this is something that you need to be spending money on, something important enough to spend money on, and that this will enhance the student experience. Mental health issues will have less of an escalation if the option to see someone, and talk about it, is properly set in place.

Q- Do you feel keeping the support to within uni, even with the limited resources, is the right way to help students?

A- I completely understand that some students don’t want to go to the university for help and that’s part of my manifesto as well. I’m working on advertising additional outside services for students who, for whatever reason, feel that they don’t want to go to uni for help. Basically highlight that there are outside mental health services that you can access, and that are for students as well, because I think it is quite a big misconception that students can only go to the university for help. Outside mental health services are available to everyone, including students.

Q- Do you think the university services should have the power to prescribe medication if needed?

A- I think the counsellors need to become better at signposting, because from what I understand there have been problems in the past when they have tried to deal with issues they are not equipped to deal with or trained to handle. I think that when something like that comes up they need to be able to tell you where to go to get the continued support you need, which unfortunately hasn’t happened much in the past. If you’re sitting there and needing medication and they’re not telling you where to go to get that prescribed, then you’re kinda stuck, and it’s not okay for you to try and sort out help and then not be helped adequately.

Q- During the elections people voiced their opinions on issues to do with confidentiality within the Student Support Hub. What steps are you personally going to take to improve these support services?

A- So I think the big issue here is that they’ve rebranded this whole thing and tried to make it easier and more accessible, and this in turn has thrown confidentiality out the window. What we need to do is make the service add something that allows it to be discrete and confidential, so that students can go up and book an appointment without needing to say who they want to see and why.

Q- What are your thoughts on the student led societies and organisations around mental health within as well as outside of uni?

A- I think there is some really great stuff out there. One thing I have kept up with is the rape crisis centre in Riverside. I know they have done some really great work and recently launched a campaign that basically says that sometimes when people are sexually assaulted they freeze. That not all people struggle and fight back, and if you didn’t, many people will say that you weren’t sexually assaulted. They are trying to break that stigma and say that sometimes not all people fight back, you do just freeze, and there’s nothing wrong with having that reaction. They did some really great work with the university during their strategy against sexual misconduct campaign, and I’ve spoken to them recently and they have said they are more than happy to come in and give training to the counsellors on how to handle a rape incident, and how to signpost it with services. Unfortunately we do have a big issue with sexual violence at the uni, so this is definitely something we can work on.

Q- When you hear the words ‘mental health’, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?

A- Depression. I think that’s a personal thing. I struggled with depression in second year, but now I’ve got it under control.

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