So, first, as our agony aunt this year for The SOAS Spirit, tell us about yourself.
Pauline: My name is Pauline Blanchet, and I am a third-year student, studying Linguistics and Development.
I have been passionate about mental health for a long time. At the age of fifteen, I was confronted with mental health issues quite seriously. I experienced two close friends committing suicide, largely due to eating disorders and anorexia. This was a massive shock, for me and my friends, and it was a hard time to be at school. I decided that something had to be done because this was happening more frequently than I thought. This also happens at SOAS. I confronted mental health issues with people around me at university too, and it was a struggle to see them go through it and to see not much help.
So, as our agony aunt, you will be answering emails and messages from students. What do you think is the difference between a student like you giving advice, and an older professional in the well-being department?
Pauline: When you are a student, you have been through similar experiences, and SOAS is great because it’s a close-knit place so you see lots of different experiences. Sometimes people do similar or completely different things. Coming to a student might build your confidence to go up and talk about similar issues to other students that you didn’t realise were facing the same issue. Just breaking down the stigma.
Do you think mental health stigma is a big problem that stops recovery? Do you think removing the stigma and talking about it will help?
Pauline: I think it can make you feel better. It can sometimes make you feel better or worse, depending on the situation. There are points sometimes when you can self-diagnose: when you tell yourself you have something and tell others that you have this. It is not your fault, it is largely because there is a lack of education on it. So, no one you are telling is properly educated so sometimes it doesn’t help, when the people you are telling don’t have the right answers.
What gives you the experience to talk and help students with their issues?
Pauline: Because of my past experiences with mental health and suicide, it took me to a place of grief and it does make you realise that the people around you are not well, in a severe way. I then went to psychotherapy for two years which was really helped me. I know it is not for everyone, and everyone has their own way, and I tried a few [different ways] and so did my friends. There was intense therapy, medication, CBT. There are so many ways, and it can be unclear because no one really knows what it best. So, after that, I worked with the place I got psychotherapy from, Brent centre for young people, a free mental health service.
What is it about university that creates these new issues?
Pauline: I think being confronted with such a new environment, and a complete mix of people, which makes you question yourself because you don’t know quite where to fit in. Especially in a place like SOAS where people are so eager to learn, and it can very easy to feel stupid. You come in and not know anything about the campaigns. In my first year, I felt intimidated by the Students’ Union, and I’m sure a lot of people do.
I think it is easy to believe that these feelings will be your whole university experience, and it is very easy to forget this experience will not last – its brief. Mental health is also so broad, and when you are feeling an emotion, it is good to address it, and not let your thinking and emotions go into extremes.
So recently you just released your new podcast series, tell us about that?
Pauline: in February this year I was given a grant by O2, in partnership with Brent Centre to investigate the common mental health issues that young people face. The first episode is about suicide and the personal experiences of my friends, as well as talking to some psychotherapists about what suicide means and how to grieve. The next [episodes] are about men and masculinity; then the dark world of social media and Tumblr; and the anorexia too. There is a lot to be talked about.
What plans do you have and what topics will you be discussing as our agony aunt?
Pauline: As an agony aunt, I want to be open, I don’t want people to be scared, no one will be judged. Of course, it can be anonymous. Some topics will be talking about being alumni anxiety, Freshers’ difficulties, social media, exam stress. What you send in is what fifty other people might be feeling and they’d be so grateful. It is also about breaking down the stigma, and to stop hiding it and start talking about it.