Last week Leeds University Union agreed to a ‘Time to Talk’ pledge. Sam Dennis and Lawrence Thompson from the Mind Matters society talk to LS about what’s next for mental health and their battle against discrimination.
When I was younger, I remember finding it very difficult to talk about my grandparents with my friends at school. My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s my entire life; and especially when I was young, I didn’t know anyone else who might be able to relate. But it was more than that: I didn’t know how to talk about it to other members of my family too. Everyone had their own unique relationship to my grandmother and their own coping methods for getting through her disease. So even though you’d think we would all be united in support, I spent a lot of the time not knowing how to express my own feelings, or how to help others.
It was only when a friend of mine told me once that her grandfather was suffering from Parkinson’s that I felt I wasn’t alone. In fact, there are about 800,000 people with dementia in the UK, a figure which is expected to rise to above 1 million by 2021. However, only 44 per cent of people living with dementia in the UK receive a diagnosis. And dementia is only one form of mental illness.
Cue the Mind Matters Society. Here, at the University of Leeds, Mind Matters is a support group dedicated to promoting mental health awareness, developing mental wellbeing on campus, tackling the stigma surrounding mental health and supporting people affected by it. But this doesn’t just mean people with mental health problems; Mind Matters also helps support people who know someone affected by mental health and might not know how to behave around them or what to do.
Lawrence Thompson, Vice President of Mind Matters, told LS, “Mind Matters has set up a student support group where students who are experiencing difficulties can go, providing a safe, comforting environment for those with mental health difficulties with the political role of advocating their interests.”
Campaigns coordinator Sam Dennis added, “We run a peer-led support group in conjunction with the charity Rethink that offers a safe space for people to talk about their experiences. It’s so important to create such spaces so people don’t feel alone when things are tough. Our regular socials have involved pub nights, craft sessions, film screenings and collaborations with other societies like the Yoga Society and Book Club.”
A big reason why I found it so tough to talk about my grandmother was because I didn’t know if people could understand, because there’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental health. For instance, when you think of mental health, you’d assume illnesses like dementia, but what about depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders? Are people even themselves with mental illnesses?
Lawrence explained, “I sincerely believe mental health stigma, whether it be casual stereotyping or grossly inadequate funding, is the defining challenge of our time. We can do better. It’s not just a function of increasing funding; it’s about changing attitudes and that will be a tremendously hard thing to do.”
Last Monday, Mind Matters put its next plan in motion. Going directly to the Leeds University Union, Mind Matters initiated forum discussions for a better Union – one which would be more aware of both the problems and stigmas surrounding mental health. After a meeting with the Union’s Welfare Officer Charlotte Warner and Jeanette Hannah, the University Mental Health Advisor, Mind Matters got the Union to agree to a ‘Time to Talk’ pledge to improve on mental health policy and service. Lawrence and Sam made it clear just how important such motions are for the University, and outlined the road ahead.
According to Lawrence, “This struggle, this political struggle, cannot and should not end with the University signing a pledge to improve policy and service access. But it’s a very good place to start.”
Possibly the most impressive thing about Mind Matters, and what stuck out the most when speaking to its members, was just how driven and motivated everyone is in the committee. With people like Sam and Lawrence heading Mind Matters, issues concerning mental health shouldn’t be, as last year’s big campaign expressed, the elephant in the room for very much longer.
Lawrence and Sam are clear about their message: “Once you get people talking about mental health, everyone starts to pitch in and you realise that there is a huge network of people who care about these issues. Mental illness doesn’t make someone a different, alien person – they are the same wonderful person that they always were and as a friend you can help them to feel themselves again in whatever small way, even if you just act as a sounding board or giving them a hug. I’ve seen students have to fight far too hard to get the support and understanding they need from those around them and groups like Mind Matters can make a huge difference in fighting discrimination and promoting understanding on campus.”
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