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Mental Health and… Action

Everyone’s mental health is different. No two people experience their environment in the same way, and so the pressures and difficulties we face at LSE are as diverse as the student body itself. This blog is an exploration of how people from all walks of life approach and understand their mental wellbeing, be it with diagnosable conditions or just dealing with the pressures of university life.

As the lent term starts to draw to a close, so does this blog. Looking back over the 7 entries I’ve written, I’m proud of how wide-reaching the topics I’ve been and how many perspectives the blog has managed to examine in a short space of time. However, as some readers have pointed out, it tends to focus on the negative aspects of mental health. Therefore, this last interview shows a more positive aspect of the mental wellbeing: how we can inspire change.

At the start of this blog, I made my goal simple: “I want LSE to open up about mental health.” How can we encourage people to discuss their mental health in such a pressured environment? How can we reconcile mental struggle and success?

This week’s interviewee says the answer lies in conversation and dismantling stigma. One of the most impressive people I’ve met at LSE, she tells me how her personal and family history of mental health difficulties have led her to take constructive action.

As a 14-year-old confronting a consistently low mood for the first time, she describes how hearing the words “mental health” gave her a toolkit for understanding her emotions. Repeating the mantra “everyone has a mental health” throughout our conversation, she clearly believes in the power of individual action in the face of mental struggle. This makes intuitive sense: phrases such as “mental wellbeing” and “mental health” give us agency, and empower us to make healthier choices, and seek help. We not only give ourselves agency, but allow ourselves to empathize more deeply with those who are struggling to cope.

But this is not yet an answer to the wider issue of how we can change a culture. Individual awareness is one thing, but social change is another. Who should be responsible for the burden of shifting pervasive social attitudes to mental health?

The answer is obviously intricate. No individual movement will change the world completely, and no single approach to activism is sufficient. But that does not undermine the significance of individual efforts. This week’s interviewee is a prime example of this: having set up the mental well-being festival in Bristol aged just 16, she has been heavily involved in mental health activism from an early age. In fact, her own work can only be considered a success: the festival, named ‘Freedom of Mind’, has run for three successive years and is now a registered company.

Indeed, personal actions can be incredibly effective: since the festival’s conception in 2016, she has seen numerous people open up and become empowered by open and judgement-free discussion of all aspects of mental health – both good and bad. This takes place at a community level, as well as among family and friends.

However encouraging this story may be, it leaves one question itching at the back of my mind. What motivates her to take personal responsibility for the way mental health is discussed?

The answer, she says, relies on the reciprocal relationship between helping others and ourselves. Angsty teenager that she was, it was a book which ultimately helped her to realize that devoting ourselves to an external purpose can be clarifying for our own sense of identity. Deep, right?

While couched in pretentious language, this point is encouraging: when we make the commitment to campaign for change, we gain a greater understanding of our own mind and motivations. Helping others, then, is not mythical altruism, but a practical and mutually beneficial decision to facilitate change. Committing ourselves to a cause bigger than our own creates a space in which we can explore our mind in a constructive and public way.

Not everyone will want to set up a company but the process of encouraging others to re-assess their pre-conceptions can be focusing and helpful. This week’s interviewee reminds me of another friend who fundraised very publicly for the mental health charity Mind last year: both talk of how empowering the experience of taking action can be. Thinking of others, it seems, is a healthy way of starting to understand ourselves.

Ella Marshall is a first-year International Relations and History student at LSE, and the founder of the Bristol-based mental-wellbeing festival “Freedom of Mind,” which is bringing its unique mix of panel-events, art and music showcases, and other activities to LSE from the 7th-11th October 2019. If you are interested in finding out more or getting involved, visit http://freedomofmind.org.uk or email LSEfestival@freedomofmind.org.uk.

If you are struggling with your mental health, LSE has a number of resources available to help you. Visit https://info.lse.ac.uk/current-students/student-wellbeing/mental-health-support for more information.

If you require urgent support, the Samaritans offer free and confidential support UK-wide on 116 123.

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