Protection or patronisation? Does mental health need a liberation officer?

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Warwick is pretty good on mental health. We have an active campaigning society. We had Sabbatical Officers that put it as their top priority for last year (and one of their top ones for this year). We have a mental health policy passed by an overwhelming majority. This is clearly an issue people care about and where an awful lot is happening to make things better. But there is a worrying reluctance to listen to those of us heavily affected by mental health problems who receive stigma and disregard on a regular basis.

The Mental Health Policy originally contained a section that would have created a “Mental Health Awareness Officer” as a new liberation officer (alongside the current ones for Disabled Students, Women, Ethnic Minorities and LGBTUA+). It would have been a position elected by and from those that self-define as “students with mental health problems” to represent them and their needs.

During the long journey through SU democracy, this section was separated out and the position was changed many times until settling on what we actually got: two “Mental Health [Awareness] Campaigns Representatives”, open to all.

There is a worrying reluctance to listen to those of us heavily affected by mental health problems who receive stigma and disregard on a regular basis

Candidates were supposed to be encouraged to discuss their experiences of mental health problems but ultimately there is no way to guarantee that those elected will actually have any direct experience of any mental health problem. In reality, only one of the candidates in the 2016/17 elections mentioned any personal experience with mental health problems in their manifesto. I agreed to this version of the motion because I could see it was the best we were going to get. It works as a basic first step but it is not what I think we need.

The reason we have Liberation Officers is to represent the underrepresented. To speak for those who, for many reasons, find it hard to have their voices heard. And that means they need to be accountable to, elected by, and part of, the community they represent.

The reason we have Liberation Officers is to represent the underrepresented

Currently, those with mental health problems are classified under the “Disabled Students” liberation group. This is a category which many of us who experience significant mental distress that impairs our daily lives do not feel comfortable identifying as. And yet, when we ask for a separate individual to better represent our experiences, we are no longer seen to need a Liberation Officer.

The reasoning behind opening the positions to all students was that it should be possible for those who campaign for mental health awareness (but without having personal experience of mental health problems) to be able to hold the position.That sounds like a reasonable argument. We all have mental health just as we all have physical health. But it feels like a double-standard is being applied.

The reasoning behind opening the positions to all students was that it should be possible for those who campaign for mental health awareness … to be able to hold the position

I have female friends. I have heard from them about a lot of the issues and everyday sexism that they have to put up with. There is a huge problem with gender inequality and it is something I care a lot about. Does that make me a supporter of women’s rights and gender equality? I hope so. Does it mean I should be able to be Women’s Officer? No.

The other main concern raised with the proposed new Officer was that it would be too much of a burden for someone with mental health problems. It was thought that the stress and expectations of such a position could be too much. I know that these concerns were raised with the very best intentions.

The other main concern raised with the proposed new Officer was that it would be too much of a burden for someone with mental health problems

But unfortunately, this raises some very uncomfortable questions. 46% of young women have had problems with their mental health. 70% of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual young people have had suicidal thoughts (89% for Trans*). Does that mean that these students are unsuitable to be Liberation Officers? Are we really saying that over 70% of LGBT students should not be LGBTUA+ Officer? That almost half of female students should forget about becoming Women’s Officer because they wouldn’t be able to cope?

Mental health problems are far from black and white. There are shades in between “everything is fine” and “slumped against a wall with head in hands”. It feels very patronising to be told that we can’t be trusted to know our own limits. That we need to be protected in case we try to do too much and hurt ourselves.

Mental health problems are far from black and white

We trust disabled students to know whether they can cope with being Disabled Students’ Officer. We trust Part-Time students to know whether they have the time to be Part-Time & Mature Students’ Officer.  But apparently our impression of students with mental health problems means we don’t trust them to judge their own abilities. Sympathy can only go so far. Knowledge is not the same as experience.

The people who campaign alongside those of us with mental health problems are invaluable. They are some of the kindest and most passionate people and their work makes a huge impact – we are grateful for everything they do. But it will never quite be the same as living with it yourself.

Empathy can only go so far. Knowledge is not the same as experience.

Before I started dealing with my own mental health problems, I could never have imagined what it was like. You can read descriptions, talk to people, see its impact first hand on the people you care about. But there is nothing quite the same as feeling the mental pain burning within you. It’s not something I would ever wish on anyone but it is the only way to really understand what it feels like.

Mental health problems are all very different (much the same as physical health problems). But we share some experiences, we share the stigma and we form a loose community. And right now, I feel this community lacks the recognition that it needs.  It is clear that the SU cares and wants to help us. But there has been a worrying amount of compromise when it comes to the representation of students with mental health problems. The SU is definitely helping. But it isn’t always listening.

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