Are SUs practicing what they’re preaching on mental health?

They all become politicians, she said. They even take a year out of their degree to fulfil a role.

I have a brief but vivid memory of my first year – I was visiting a childhood friend, walking through the university of Oxford’s buildings, and she pointed out the SU’s offices.

I remember feeling astonishment at the idea of being a student officer – the dedication that they must have, but also how unrelatable it felt at the time. Fast forward three years, I’m looking back on running in and winning two elections – student politics became my life.

Follow the recipe

I’m still struggling to find the words to accurately define this niche profession. I once heard a comparison between student politics and cooking – and it didn’t seem that far-fetched.

Imagine you are cooking a meal for your whole family. You are juggling the rice that needs cooking, the meat that is nearly done for some and needs a bit longer for others, the vegetables that need chopping, the kettle that hasn’t boiled yet, the oven that needs to be turned off, the pudding that needs defrosting and then there’s the appetisers you forgot.

Remembering of course that you are juggling all of this under the critical eye of your family to make sure it’s up to standard. That’s politics. Add a pinch of vulnerability due to young age, and you have student politics.

Along the way, there are two surprising aspects of higher education that go against all the preconceptions I had. My first surprise was working with the university. My second surprise was working inside the students’ union.

The first unexpected revelation was how proactive the university was. There are many flaws in the system, and you constantly hear people complaining about how universities are slow and don’t change much, but I was confronted with eagerness to improve the facilities and the student experience.

Two tribes

In fairness, there’s two sides to the university. One is progressive and embraces change. One is more corporate. One wouldn’t work without the other as the progressive side brings innovations and the corporate side brings stability and sustainability. The first sees the dynamism of student politics, the second sees sabbatical officers as tokenistic members of decision making bodies.

It means we have to find the right people – when our time in office is limited, it is even more important to not get dispirited by the corporate side of the university and to focus our energy on the humans who also thrive from change.

The second unexpected revelation was how difficult it was to work within the union – I can’t think about my time without reminiscing on the pain I felt. I am incredibly (and probably immodestly) proud of the work I achieved, but should supporting students come at such a cost for those of us that undertake the role?

As the face of “support” in the union, I became both a one-stop-shop for support and a lightning rod for students to disclose to, which I was neither qualified for nor trained to deal with. This presents a debate – should we safeguard sabbatical officers from student disclosures or should we provide more support for them? Instinctively, we would try and remove the root of the problem, instead of doing damage-control. But that one conversation in the SU nightclub between a distressed student and the VP Support may be the first ever time that that student opens up.

As much as those conversations are extremely difficult and ethically questionable, students have expressed to me that sober they would never have sought professional help if it wasn’t for someone explaining their options beforehand, in an environment familiar to them, even if it means they were doing so whilst intoxicated. But if we don’t shield the officers, how do we ensure that they are coping with the disclosures?

Prevent or treat

If someone divulges something serious to you, talking as a coping mechanism isn’t readily available as an officer. It is a breach of confidentiality if you talk to your peers, and it can easily become a conflict of interest if you talk to other sabbatical officers or support officers if a case goes to a panel. Boundaries also seem crucial with the student counselling centre where the VP Support has fortnightly meetings.

The remaining option is SU staff members who aren’t directly involved – but one told me to step it up and deal with it, and another told me the SU would pay for a life coach but not counselling.

SUs spend a lot of time trying to convince university staff to get disclosure training, mental health first aid training, LGBTQ+ awareness training, race equality training and so on, often without applying these standards to themselves. If all SUs invested in training their people on these issues, they would not only have a better relationship with students – but it may just empower sabbatical officers that much more. It is the renowned butterfly effect.

Then, if sabbatical officers were supported by staff who understood their difficulties and provided external support, such as reflective practice, they would have more strength to start new projects and put themselves out there. Student-facing SU staff would then also have a more empathetic approach to students and would potentially be able to pick up on mental health difficulties more easily and signpost those students appropriately.

Most SU staff (both career and student) will encounter students on a daily basis and it should become an SU responsibility to ensure that all those encounters maximise their potential, notably by staff being able to pick up on signs of distress or poor mental health and acting accordingly.

In my time I came across some SU staff whose contribution to student and officer wellbeing was remarkable, and deserves to be praised. But as an SU sector we need that sort of contribution to be systemic, not heroic. Recognising that wellbeing is everyone’s role is the next fundamental step for SUs in providing the support that students need.

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