Posted on Thu 25 Feb 2016 at 14:53 by Luke Pilot
While it is indeed Mental Health Awareness Week, it is worth remembering that mental health remains relevant all year round: it’s an issue we should always be considering and shouldn’t ever shy away from in conversation. That is what MHAW week aims to do - to break down the barriers prohibiting this open conversation so we can speak openly; to ensure that we don’t assume something about someone’s health, and enable those who need it feel empowered to seek support.
Students at Warwick have been at the forefront of the campaign for better mental health awareness and support for years now. Back in my first year, a fellow student took the initiative to set up the campaigning society which would later become Warwick Mind Aware. Mind Aware’s campaigning has not only garnered awards, it has also spread its message to Universities across the country.
Elsewhere, students from theatre groups have been writing plays about mental health and taking them to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Campaigning groups have organised events around liberation in mental health and to coincide with national days of action. Mental Health Awareness Week has gone from being run solely by Psychology Society to a multitude of societies, SU officers and staff, with local charities and University staff organising talks, panels, discussion groups, spaces and campaigns to inspire and empower students to challenge the stigmas surrounding mental health.
And yet there is still much work left to be done.
Just last term, requests for access to Student Support services at Warwick skyrocketed in comparison to the previous year. Is this because of an increase in the prevalence of mental illnesses? Is it because stigmas are being sufficiently dismantled that people are better recognising when they need support? Is it the increasing student population?
It is likely a combination of these factors - which are in turn caused by a perfect storm of variables and pressures.
Government austerity measures have resulted in the reduction of support structures for people from under-served groups (PACE - a mental health support charity for LGBTUA+ people - was sadly forced to close recently after its funding was cut), while cuts in bursaries for mental health nurses and staff serve to further reduce the capacity of services like the NHS and volunteer groups to help people. Other policies also suggest an insufficient national strategy towards helping those who need it - the attitude towards mental health is clearly questionable when legislation like Prevent is insidiously applied to wellbeing and support services and people are forced to question whether they can trust the person they are confiding in.
Elsewhere, the marketisation of Higher Education leads to students placing value on every lecture, every seminar and every minute spent in the Library, thus compromising their wellbeing and the enjoyment of extra-curricular activities in the name of commitment to their studies. The corporate stranglehold on Higher Education and a constant focus on one’s employability conditions students to view their academic progress as an entirely individualistic progression, forcing them to compete against each other rather than engaging with education’s key concept: the sharing of knowledge or ideas for mutual benefit.
This focus on the individual is a difficult issue to resolve; on the one hand, we are often encouraged to practice self-care and self-compassion (which are incredibly important), but this can be difficult to reconcile with criticisms of an individualistic culture. However, this is where we can change the narrative around individualism by learning about the advantages of a collectivist culture. Peer support is incredibly powerful in helping people recover or become comfortable with their wellbeing. Speaking to others about our problems can be a liberating experience, while simply asking someone how they are doing can lead to a powerful conversation. Being sensitive about the language we use when we discuss mental health can also help create a far more inclusive community for everyone to exist in; simply having empathy and respect for one another and expressing compassion for people other than ourselves (as well as providing that extra support in their time of need) is a powerful demonstration of the benefits of a supportive, cooperative collective.
However, this concept of a collective must also challenge the concept that everyone has equal access, because many do not. Issues around mental wellbeing are exacerbated by the structures we exist in, and these institutional and systemic problems often prevent equal access to support and discriminate against different groups of people. It is therefore imperative that we recognise the extra burden society puts on women through the expectation that they provide emotional labour without compensation. We have to analyse why the prevalence of suicide attempts is significantly higher amongst Transgender people and those from BME backgrounds. We must challenge why women’s pain is often dismissed in the medical profession, and why black people experience higher incidences of schizophrenia diagnoses while being denied access to mental health support.
We cannot have a discussion around mental health and dismantling stigmas without looking at these issues, and it is vital that we discuss how to practically apply our new awareness. Let’s open the discussion further, let’s think about how we can be empathic and respectful to one another, and let’s look out for each other.
Please check out the Mental Health Awareness Week calendar to keep up to date with the rest of this week’s events: https://www.warwicksu.com/news/article/warwicksu/Mental-Health-Awareness-Week-Week-7-2/?homepage