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Student Profile: Uthman Isahaq

Thursday 7 March is University Mental Health Day. We speak to Uthman Isahaq, a student in the School of Politics and International Relations, and the Vice President of Queen Mary's Unity Society, about the state of mental health at universities, what Queen Mary offers, and how he thinks they could help to support students' mental health even further.

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Name: Uthman Isahaq

School: School of Politics and International Relations

Role: Vice-President, Queen Mary’s Unity Society, which aims to break down barriers and taboos that students, and society, hold in talking about and discussing mental health.

Could you tell us about the Unity Society?

We are a relatively new society, only being affiliated at the start of this academic year, but our team, led by our president Gina Gambetta, has already put on several events on campus around mental health, for example, organising mental health first aid training for students. The aim was to have student champions of mental health on our campus, armed with the relevant knowledge in assisting themselves and other students in need, through our conversation cafes.   

Other than that, we have been working with departments within the University to increase visibility of the services that the University offers.

What is the current state of mental health at universities, and at Queen Mary in particular?

Regrettably, it’s a fact that one in four students struggle with mental health problems at university. So, although we appreciate and support the work universities, including Queen Mary, do in helping students, more needs to be done. 

For example,  universities need to include voices of the student body when designing strategies to create services that understand student’s needs.

Our society has been working with the student wellbeing services to promote mental health on campus. Our most recent successful collaboration took place on World Mental Health Day in October, and we are confident this relationship and collaboration will continue to grow.

How is general attitude to mental health changing?

Television and popular culture references speak about mental health much more candidly than they once did. This has allowed people to appreciate mental health like any other treatable health problem rather than something to be feared or shunned.

However, there is still great work to be done in understanding mental health as a society. Nearly nine out of ten people feel they have been discriminated or stigmatised because of their mental health. As a society we sometimes use loaded words irresponsibly. For example, people use “depressed” to mean sad or tired, and “bipolar” as shorthand for mood changes. This trivialises the experiences of those who are diagnosed and is something which we should be more mindful of. 

Overall, it’s evident that society has taken steps toward better understanding mental health, and people feel empowered to speak about the problems they are facing. As a society we are at an excellent starting point to further our understanding of this part of ourselves.

What can students do to support other students and themselves with their mental health?

One of our aims throughout our events this year was to start to create a culture on campus where students know who they can go and talk to about any problem they are facing. To achieve this, we introduced conversation starters and gave many of these out to students. The point of this wasn’t to treat or intervene but rather to break down any barriers that students had in either speaking to or listening to one another when it comes to mental health. Having someone to talk to is very important. It just takes one chat for someone to feel comfortable.

Proper time management is so important for students. This means studying when needed, but also taking time out to socialise. Taking things in moderation is important, and one aspect of student life shouldn’t be prioritised at the expense others. I personally think good food and a good night sleep are important for my mental health, for example.

What can staff do to support students with their mental health?

For our society, one issue that students have said could be improved is be a better understanding of culture and the roles BAME young people are playing in their homes and communities while studying, which can contribute to their mental health problems. It is important that staff recognise the unique needs of these different identities. To do this, staff who support student mental health need to be culturally aware. 

Thursday 7 March is University Mental Health Day. To celebrate this, and to support students and staff with their mental wellbeing, there will be a number of activities around the University. These include stalls and activities from support providers at the University, and workshops in things as varied as cognitive behavioural therapy and Thai boxing”. Learn more at the University Mental Health Day webpage.