At ANU Open Day 2015, as Co-Chair of the ANUSA Mental Health Committee (MHC), I was running our stall when I was grilled for not studying psychology. The attacker in question, a science professor, accused me of “not knowing what [I’m] selling”.
I wasn’t “selling” anything, but that’s beside the point. His reasoning was valid, though. Although I am one of the Chairs, I study a Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Studies, have never held a pastoral care role at college, and my formal knowledge only goes as far as my Mental Health First Aid training. So what gives me the right to hold this role and contribute to the student wellbeing discourse? Totally unqualified and highly vulnerable to mental illnesses, why do we university students think we can help?
I first encountered “mental health” as a topic in high school, an academically selective institution where about 1 in 5 girls in my grade suffered from eating disorders in our final year. I moved to college, and pastoral care was everywhere, all the time. Literally.
As president of my college’s residents’ committee, I sat in on Senior Resident meetings throughout the year. Wow, this opened my eyes. I thought we were all being caught by the safety net of the comprehensive support system. In reality, students were falling through the cracks, left, right and centre.
Since then, my awareness of mental health and the scope of mental illness has grown continuously. Furthermore, my concern for the gaping flaws in student support mechanisms has intensified. And most importantly, my passion for mental health maintenance has thrived.
This is what I believe legitimises my place on the ANUSA MHC. I believe it is this awareness, concern, and passion that legitimises any student trying to improve the wellbeing of others.
The key exempting clause is that we cannot assume we can eradicate the problem, at any level. All we can do is try our best. But if we start claiming any authority to know what “fixes” the vulnerability of students or what “cures” mental illness, we’re in trouble and way out of our depth. That’s where you can start doing more damage than good. That stuff is for the professionals.
So what can we do?
The MHC covers the three main areas of student involvement in mental health support. Firstly, use your awareness. The MHC provides information to students and staff on mental health, mental illnesses, support services and ways to help. A fairly straightforward function which anyone can do with a bit of critical analysis.
There’s a fantastically overwhelming amount of information on the internet which can be useful so long as you remember that everyone’s mentality is different, just like everyone’s physicality is different. Where one person may want a personal trainer, other people prefer team sports to keep fit. Similarly, in terms of mental health, some people prefer socialising whilst others want time by themselves.
What we can do, as unqualified students, is find the relevant information, sort through it, use it to better understand our own mental health and pass it on in a non-judgemental way.
Secondly, use your concern. As the primary users of the university’s services, students are best placed to give feedback on how to strengthen the weaknesses in the systems. The MHC gathers and conveys this feedback to university staff.
You don’t need a qualification to realise that a month is too long to have to wait for a counselling appointment, or that your course convenor should understand if you have a panic attack during a take-home exam and be able to do something about it.
Thirdly, use your passion. The MHC organises, runs, and supports initiatives that encourage positive mental health. Again, so long as you realise that not everything works for everyone, this is fairly straightforward.
ANU students have excelled in organising initiatives that promote positive mental health and the key is accessibility, with a bit of background knowledge. When an event/activity is open to all, optional, inclusive, judgement-free and easy to get to, then there’s unlikely to be any harm done, especially if the organiser combines their awareness with their passion.
So yes, we do have the legitimacy to try improve student wellbeing at university. This stems from our awareness that mental health is an important aspect of university life, our concern that there are gaps in the current student support system, and our passion to make it better. So long as we don’t assume we have all the answers or that one method works for all, then every little bit helps. Whether we’re working to improve systems and structures, to increase knowledge and understanding, or to promote positive mental health, at least we’re doing something.
If you think you may be experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mental health problem, please contact ANU Counselling on 6125 2442, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.