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Highlighting student mental health issues through film

During my time at university, I always found it fascinating how many of us would fill in mitigating circumstances forms, have coursework deadlines extended or exams deferred because of issues relating to mental health.

It was a very helpful system if you needed adjustments to your studies. But it made me think, “Aside from adjustments in academic studies, could universities be doing more to help in these situations?”

Years after I left, I was glad to see the gap in mental health care among university students being highlighted. What concerned me, however, was that these statistics could not grasp the true experience of students. These were unheard voices with stories to be told.

That’s where the idea of a student mental health film festival came from.

How did we do it?

I approached the student unions at King’s College London and SOAS to see if their students would be interested in a project that would give them a platform to express lived experiences with issues relating to mental health through the creativity of filmmaking.

It was remarkable how many students came forward to tell their story. Before going off to produce their films, students openly discussed their experiences in mental health at university, problems they faced and how they envisaged mental health and support services improving.

For me, the best way to communicate these experiences with the most impact was through students creating short films. Students could actively show their experiences through imagery, body language, facial expressions, effects, voice overs and more to match the depths of the experience with mental health problems.

Students from KCL Film Society did a fantastic and creative job in the production of Maxed Out. This film depicts a student struggling with financial worries and expectations from his family, just before an important exam. Being caught in a vicious cycle of financial, familial, academic and social pressures, he seeks the support of his flatmate to find the courage and calmness to move forward with his studies.

I was intrigued by how these stories resonated with students within the audience and even with my own time at university.

The SOAS students’ film, Give It Time, explores how mental health challenges are part of daily life for many people. These students felt that the conversation around mental health has been largely aimed at ‘solving’ mental health challenges for students. Give It Time shows how mental health challenges can be an integral part of their daily lives and how time, patience and support from the people around you are crucial in living with these challenges.

The festival

Students from KCL and SOAS, student wellbeing support organisations and charities came together to watch these insightful short films. Lewis Alexander Baxer, founder of The Blurred Line Group, gave a powerful opening talk on his lived experience with previous mental health problems at university, which gave him inspiration to found a funding hub for mental health charities.

I was amazed at the brave and honest talks of Time to Change ambassadors, Jennifer and Cate. Their experiences included the stigmatisation surrounding eating disorders and the personal effects of medication as a treatment for depression and anxiety. Together UK highlighted support services and the importance of signposting these resources.

Following each film, student filmmakers discussed the background to their films. Maxed Out filmmakers explained the effects of financial worries that are common among students and how it affects their daily lives. For example, it can lead to isolation as a result of not being able to socialise in activities that need spending money.

Give It Time filmmakers explained they each had different experiences of counselling and addressed the limitations of having short term counselling sessions provided by universities and the waiting times before and between appointments.

I was intrigued by how these stories resonated with students within the audience and even with my own time at university.

It is events like this, where people can speak honestly and openly about mental health challenges in a safe space, that are essential in learning from unheard voices.

What did we learn?

I was impressed to see the various ways students want to see their mental health and care improve. It was clear to me that university students have  constructive views on possible improvements that need to be heard more often.

Here’s what we learned during the project:

  • Money worries negatively impact university students’ mental wellbeing in various ways – from lack of socialisation to being unaware of where to get help.
  • Obtaining university support can often feel standardised – many students prefer a more personal approach.
  • Signposting services could help improve the lack of awareness of the resources and support available.
  • Waiting times for counselling can feel excessive and overwhelming, and sometimes short-term counselling isn’t enough.
  • Peer support allows people to be open about mental health challenges while learning from the experience of others.

I feel it is events like this, where people can speak honestly and openly about mental health challenges in a safe space, that are essential in learning from unheard voices.

To have seen the process of students openly talking about issues faced at university, conveying them through the medium of filmmaking in their own individual, creative styles and discussing possible steps for change is inspiring.

Farhath Choudhury21 May 2020


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