Monday 10th October was World Mental Health Day and also the launch of Speak Your Mind. Speak Your Mind is a student lead campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues and encourage students to have a more full and frank discussion about mental health. I want this campaign to reach all students with a particular focus on men. Suicide is now the single biggest cause of death for men below the age of forty-five in the UK. Surveys carried out by credible pollsters, such as YouGov, show that men do not want to talk about their problems because they feel ashamed or don’t want to cause a fuss – this is not new information. Furthermore, we have witnessed a worrying increase in the number of students presenting mental health issues. That is why it is imperative that we start the conversation now so we can break down stigma and empower our students to talk about mental health on their terms.
I am particularly passionate about mental health as I myself have been plagued with mental health issues for most of my adolescence and all of my adult life. Back in March 2013 I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. However, with the power of hindsight, I can see now I’ve been ill for a much longer time than the three and a half years since my diagnosis. It was in my 6th year at school secondary school that I really started to notice that something wasn’t right. I started to feel numb and empty, sometimes sad. I had lost all of my drive and passion – not feeling any passion was the worst thing about my depression, as everyone knows I have a lot of fire in the belly.
I became distant in school, gazing at a blank jotter or at a wall, feeling lonely and isolated in a noisy classroom. I couldn’t concentrate or muster anything within me to do any work or hold a full conversation with someone. Everyone, students and teachers, were constantly commenting on how miserable I looked and that I was always down in the dumps. This just made me feel worse, and it made me feel like I was somehow to blame for my mood. This inevitably led to a breakdown in my relationship with some of my favourite teachers and my classmates. School life was truly miserable. Home was no better. I had tricky life at home which compounded how I was feeling – it was in fact the root of my woes. Crisis point was fast approaching.
After a hard day at school I went to my job as a telesales adviser feeling incredibly anxious and distressed, I felt like I could burst at any moment. I did. Whilst in the middle of a call, I snapped, slammed down the phone and ran out of work in floods in tears unable to comprehend what I was feeling and why I was feeling like this. I didn’t want to be here anymore feeling those feelings. I phoned my mates and headed straight to the Boars Rock, our watering hole. After a few miserable pints I left without saying much and headed back home, back to my room where I had spent many a sleepless night torturing myself with vicious thought after vicious thought. As soon as I got in the door, I grabbed a bottle of whiskey and sat at my desk drinking and crying until I was drunk, until I felt utterly hopeless. I realised that this was no way to live, I had to reach out, I had to get help. The one person who I could trust was a youth worker that I met when I volunteered with Dundee City Council. I paced about my room pondering over whether I should send him a text or not. I decided to send the text and I’m glad I did because it’s the reason why I am here now.
By reaching out and speaking to someone, I was able to get the help and support I needed to get to uni, but more importantly to get well again. Speaking to someone I trusted gave me the confidence to be more open about my mental health issues which empowered me to take back control over how I felt. Don’t get me wrong, the past three-and-a-half years have been tremendously difficult and draining. I sometimes struggled with uni and on occasion my mental health got the better of me. What kept me going was my ability to talk about how I was feeling. Talking about my feelings made me feel sane and it made me realise that I really am not alone in this battle; that so many others are facing the same challenges I face. Although it took me years, I got over this rough patch and reignited my passion for living. The turning point was when I decided to run for Union President. I have never felt so alive as I did when I was running in that election. The highs, the lows, the anticipation, the pressure – I loved it. I was doing what I wanted to do.
Getting elected was the biggest turning point in my life. It signified that I was able to overcome what was the most difficult period of my life to date. And now that I am in this position, I want to use it for good so I can help others. That is why I am so passionate about mental health. No one should suffer in silence and sometimes all you need is a little encouragement to open up. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my rough weeks and this week is one of those. It might take me an extra hour to get out of bed, and my mood might be a bit low, but I force myself to come into work because I know I have the strength to overcome this rough patch and I know that I am more than capable of fulfilling my duties despite my mental health issues. My message to you is don’t suffer in silence, talk to a friend or someone you trust. Speak your mind and you will take the first step to recovery.
Busy Summer 29/08/2016
Although students don’t return to study for a couple of weeks yet, the summer has been a very busy period for the sabbatical team. Since writing my last blog entry, I have been representing Stirling at NUS events and conferences around Scotland and the United Kingdom, forging strong relationships with other sabbatical officers and students’ unions. Building these networks is vital for the work we do locally and particularly at a national level. It is clear from my discussion with other officers that the issues which face students here at Stirling are reflected across campuses around the country. Rent and accommodation, as well as mental health issues, are some of the most pressing challenges that face students; finding common ground with other sabbatical officers and unions will go some way to help overcome those challenges.
The working relationships I have established are already beginning to bear fruit. I visited Edinburgh University Students’ Association just a week ago to meet with their Vice-President Services to discuss the accommodation issues which face both of our respective institutions. From that meeting, we were able to identify individual objectives, but also find scope for collaborative work nationally. We have both agreed to work in partnership with other students’ unions and NUS Scotland to organise and host a Scottish Student Housing Summit. It is envisaged that this summit will be an opportunity for students’ unions to come together to highlight the accommodation issues which face our membership and start building a national campaign to tackle this ongoing crises.
Last Thursday, Stirling University also hosted the NUS Scotland The Gathering. The Gathering is the first big meeting of Scottish students’ unions and sabbatical officers and is an opportunity to discuss NUS Scotland’s plan of work for the year ahead and student issues which are more specific to the Scottish context. The event went well and delegates were particularly impressed by Venue and the Studio bar. The Union’s commercial staff served a delicious dinner and the sabbs enjoyed an evening of karaoke in the bar afterwards.
Whilst I have been busy networking and visiting other parts of the country, I have been busy making students’ lives better here at Stirling. I have had the opportunity to work with our Academic Representation & Development Coordinator on several student cases which have drawn my attention to the day-to-day issues which face Stirling students. Working on student cases has proven insightful and has made me aware major issues which I hadn’t previously considered as a student myself. This reactive work is shaping some of the work I do as President.
One of the more prevalent issues which appeared through case work is – my favourite topic – accommodation, more specifically, acquiring a guarantor for renting accommodation within the privately rented sector. International students, care leavers and students whose household income is less than £19,000 a year are unable to acquire a guarantor, meaning that they either have to pay up to six month’s rent to secure accommodation, or are completely excluded from renting privately. Paying large sums of money to a landlord upfront carries great risk to the tenant as the private rented sector is riddled with unscrupulous landlords and the termination of a tenancy would make it extremely difficult for a tenant to retrieve their money. This encouraged me to undertake research on guarantor schemes and I have since submitted a proposal to the university to introduce a University Guarantor Scheme here at Stirling. The idea behind a UGS is that the university will act as a guarantor for a student who cannot acquire one. At the moment, the university and I are in discussion about the possibility of introducing such a scheme at Stirling. Its early days at the moment, but I’m hopeful of a favourable outcome. If we can agree to introduce the scheme, this would be a huge win for students, but also a huge win for the university.
We are now only a couple of weeks away from students returning to their studies and also the new intake of Freshers. I’m very much looking forward to what is going to be a fantastic Freshers week and I hope you can join us in the Studio bar and Venue for some cracking entertainment. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of your time off and I look forward to welcoming you back in September.
Here We, Here We... 05/07/2016
Hi guys, I thought I'd write a wee blog post to fill you in on what I've been up to since I took office at the start of June. It's quiet over the summer as students have gone home, but preparations are being made for when everyone returns to uni in September. I'm very much looking forward to seeing you all and launching my individual campaigns, as well as setting out the Union's top three priorities for the year.
I am currently in Liverpool at the moment, representing Stirling Students' Union at the NUS SU 2016 conference. This is a great opportunity to meet other sabbatical officers, network and discuss our plans for the year ahead. As well as attending the conference, our Union will receive a Green Impact Award which is a tremendous achievement. I hope you're all enjoying your summer and I'll keep you all updated on what I'm doing over the break.