Students of Newcastle University gathered at the Students’ Union on Saturday 4th May to hold a conference on mental health, the stigma around it and how to address it.
The conference kicked off with an address from Haaris Aytishaam Mahmood Qureshi, the Conference Leader. Haaris called for greater government funding and training to help raise awareness of mental health. In the opening address he shared his own experiences with the mental health services and the problems he has had with them, detailing how education for children and young adults concerning mental health is almost non-existent. He also acknowledged that support networks are vital to improving and coping with mental health issues. Haaris continued by informing attendees about the activity of Mind the Gap over the last year, especially the role the society played in opposing the ‘fit to sit’ policy proposed by Newcastle University. This was the policy that dictated that if a student sat an exam, they waived their rights to claim any kind of extenuating circumstances. The President of Mind the Gap, Michael Halliday, then took to the stage to reiterate Mind the Gap’s mission statement, which is to lead and facilitate discussion of mental health on campus.
The keynote speaker of the conference, Paul Britton, then delivered a speech on the mental health challenges that post-graduate research students face. In particular he focused on the equality, diversity and inclusion issues that can be observed in the student population. The conference was told that the mental health of international, parental, part-time and post-graduate students faces unique challenges and requires greater research and resources to address.
There was also a teaching session by St. John Ambulance who covered emotional, social and physical wellbeing. They gave a talk about Mental Health First Aid which quickly become an enthusiastic group discussion upon how to best deal with delicate situations such as self-harm and eating disorders, and how to be more aware of subtle, or overt symptoms. During this discussion, we heard from students who have had personal experiences either dealing with, or living with mental health conditions. The primary rule taken away from this workshop was to prevent putting yourself, or indeed others, in harm’s way, and to approach a delicate situation with compassion and a willingness to listen with consent. This was brought to us courtesy of Newcastle LINKS First Aid Society.
At the conference there was also a panel discussion regarding student mental health on campus. On the panel there were students from Newcastle University, including Harriot Sloane, Rabeeyah Cheema, Charlotte Paige Boulton, Emma Dawson and Aleisha Stansfield. Topics discussed at the panel primarily focused upon the importance of social networks in helping to manage mental health among students. They criticised the cost of freshers’ week wristbands, and the structure of freshers’ week as a whole, especially for those who do not drink alcohol, or may feel isolated as a result of the activities chosen. The panel made it clear that the costs of daytime activities were too high and excluded students from low-income backgrounds; it was furthermore addressed that most evening activities revolve around a drinking culture. Sports were also discussed as a good route to help in the improvement of student mental wellbeing but were also criticised as being costly to get involved in. The Students’ Union is aiming to make participation in sports cheaper next year, along with the opening of the new student sport centre, as well as incorporating mental health into student health and wellbeing.
When asked for comment, Conference Lead Haaris said “I am very pleased with attendance, especially the panels and the workshops”. The conference was clearly a success and indicates that we shall see an innovative approach in order to mitigate the problems of a mental health crisis at Newcastle University, due to brave and committed students, such as those in attendance.