Peer support groups are increasingly filling the void created by the various inadequacies of services provided by the NHS. These have the potential to be fantastic networks of individuals, ready to help, support and advise their peers. To have a welcoming group of people with evidently shared experiences of mental illness can be a huge help to lowering the barrier for seeking help. I helped set up and run one such group, the Peace of Mind student society at the University of Bristol.
This is one of only a handful of student societies across the country dedicated to mental health in the student population. One of the more interesting problems we have had to face is making sure we are equally welcoming to all members, while also ensuring no one demographic has a monopoly on the direction of the society or the discussions it has. It is an impossible balancing act, which asks members to be clued up on a huge breadth of issues, mental health being only one of many. It is these extra pieces of potentially assumed knowledge which can end up raising the entry barrier again, sometimes to those who need the support the most.
I have been lucky enough in my time at Bristol to get a very thorough, and patient introduction to some of these issues. Feminism, intersectionality, privilege, LGBTQIA+ issues (starting with what all the letters stand for), the politics of race(ism) and so many other vitally important topics, all of which are relevant to wider discussion on mental health. Not everyone is this lucky, and I was certainly very crass and clumsy when initially setting out to educate myself. I hope that my friends will vouch that I have at least a “working sensitivity” (if not a working knowledge) in how to broach these topics, or discuss them without being crass. I can only apologise to all the people who I frustrated when I blustered into a community and asked (demanded?) to be educated. But, herein lies a very delicate problem.
Students like to be a progressive bunch, we’re (generally!) liberal, accepting, and like to occupy the sharp end of social causes. This means two things: you get a lot of older students (3rd & 4th years) who are very clued up on these issues, and you also get a lot of younger students (freshers) who are not so clued up, but are eager to dive into the conversation, make friends and impress their peers. Can you see where this is going?
Inevitably, people (like me) end up in spaces where they are not best placed to make assertions, and are called out (or in) with varying levels of severity by the clued up people in that group. Now, depending on how this happens, we can end up with two broad outcomes: ideally, it is all amicable and the new person ends up better educated on the matter at hand, and can more sensitively take part in discussions in that space in the future; the alternative is where they end up defensive, an argument ensues, and people end up feeling hurt, offended or excluded.
It is important to remember that it is no one persons job to educate someone else who is ill-informed, that is a huge amount of emotional labour to ask of someone. Even if it might be argued that given the effort it takes to call out something inappropriate, a link to a good article is time well spent. Equally, it cannot be helped if the “newbie” gets unduly defensive and hostile. That is a poor reflection on them, not the group they are coming into. That isn’t to say that there aren’t better or worse ways to let someone know what is or is not appropriate/inappropriate/right/wrong though. This becomes very important in online spaces where the nuance or innocence of a question can be easily interpreted as belligerence or hostility.
Bringing it back, this can be particularly damaging in a mental health society. By its nature, it is a very varied and diverse place and it is to be expected that people are going to have very different opinions. It is really important that within reasonable bounds (there is, of course, no room for genuinely nasty people), we are able to discuss each of them without leaping to call out people whose point or assertion we deem inappropriate. It does the individuals and the community no favours when people are invalidated against (what they might see as) an arbitrary standard of objective right or wrong. In the very worst cases, people feel so excluded they end up driven to some of the dangerously unhealthy corners of the Internet.I was actually fortunate enough to be on the panel for a discussion (read, debate) on mens’ mental health. There were some very divisive opinions in the room, which might easily have been swiped aside online, that as a large group we could talk about constructively. It had to be made very clear at the beginning what was and was not on the table for discussion, and while it wasn’t without contention, we managed a genuinely insightful discussion which included several perspectives which might not have been allowed to be expressed in a more authoritarian environment. Importantly, we all left actually having learnt something about the different opinions around mens mental health. It was a heartening exercise in empathising with opinions which are not ones own.
This has been a recurring, yet under discussed, issue while I have been at university. It is made all the more difficult because of the constant refreshing of the student population, so the half-life of student ideas is around two years. There are, of course, a hundred other qualifications and nuances to what I have talked about here, and talking about this in the abstract inevitably glosses over the individual instances of the problem. None the less, I have been incredibly proud of how well Peace of Mind has dealt with this as a community. Having gone through these growing pains, and making sure all of these issues are continually discussed in the context of mental health, means that we can keep our barrier to entry and support that little bit lower, while also remembering to be sensitive and empathetic about how someone is trying to communicate their point.