By Maliha Shoaib, BA English and World Philosophies
Due to a projected increase in students struggling with mental health and wellbeing, SOAS has introduced additional support initiatives. These initiatives are being made available as England emerges from a second lockdown and the winter months arrive. Both events are predicted to have a detrimental effect on students.
While SOAS’s Student Advice and Wellbeing (SAaW) team have always offered mental health and counselling services, they have introduced a number of additional initiatives to support students during these distressing times. Any student who completes a COVID-19 form to inform the university that they have tested positive receives an email from Lydia Pell, Head of Student Advice and Wellbeing, to address any practical and emotional needs.
In an interview with the Spirit, Pell said, ‘We’re in discussion at the moment about launching a specific counselling group for people who have COVID in January. We’re aware that students might have more issues post-COVID, including the long COVID impact, shame and stigma associated with their diagnosis, and long-term disabling impacts that they might not be used to.’
SAaW received an influx of students seeking support in October and November. Pell explained, ‘over the past 5 years the counselling service has seen between 500 and 600 students a year – with the higher numbers usually between January and March. So we have seen an increase this term compared to previous years, but we also saw a lot less March to August than we would have usually. This is similar to national figures in mental health services and universities, where during the lockdown period many less people were being referred/self referring for support.’
“Students often think their problem isn’t big enough for counselling. But we don’t want them to wait until their problems feel big enough for counselling – we want to see them just as it starts to feel stressful.”
Regarding counselling, Pell urges students to seek help: ‘Students often think their problem isn’t big enough for counselling. But we don’t want them to wait until their problems feel big enough for counselling – we want to see them just as it starts to feel stressful.’ Pell also encouraged students to make their needs known to SAaW so they can continue to adapt and offer new support schemes for the changing issues that arise in these unprecedented times.
SAaW have recently appointed a Black Students’ Counsellor, Abi Gordon, and are planning to appoint an International Students’ Counsellor and a Trans* Counsellor. The SU also has a Black Student Support Coordinator, Lucia Kula, who emphasised that ‘from the way wellbeing/mental health support is offered, to the way teaching and learning can become more inclusive with a focus on decolonising and accessibility for all students, it is an opportunity to shape the culture and make sure that initiatives such these continue to be possible to create a positive learning environment.’ James Hallet, SAaW Administrative Officer and former SOAS student, described SOAS’s intersectional approach to counseling as ‘cutting edge,’ explaining that SAaW ‘offer support in a way that’s mindful of the student demographic.’
Hallett and Reverend Claudette Douglas, Multi-Faith Advisor, created an international students group called ‘Let’s Chat’ in response to the many students who remained in London during lockdown. Details of how to join all SAaW events are made available in an email newsletter sent to all students every Friday. In these newsletters, the administrative staff members, Hallet and Hannah Penn, also make clear which time slots they are available for phone call check-ins. The SAaW team is also currently creating a handbook to distribute to students during the winter break which will signpost the support initiatives and events made available by the SU and the SAaW team.
Along with Student Advice and Wellbeing support initiatives, the Students’ Union is also offering a number of support schemes. In particular the SU and SAaW are working together to offer anxiety workshops. Roza Atac, SU Equality and Liberation co-president, has been working with Rev Douglas and CBT trained counsellor Jerome Dawes to provide open forums for students, particularly in university accommodation, who are feeling isolated. These sessions are held monthly.
The first session was held on 19 November via Zoom, and was based on the theme of loneliness and connectedness. The next session will be focused on supporting students who will be stuck in accommodation over winter break.
In an interview with the Spirit, Atac said, ‘We’re just trying to give people tools for self-care and their own wellbeing. It’s not group therapy or anything that replaces the services in SAaW – it’s complementary. We’re trying to build a space for people to connect and feel a sense of community.’ Atac also urged students to reach out to the sabbatical officers for support or just an ‘informal chat’ if they ‘feel lonely and need a buddy.’
Hasan Zakria, SU Activities and Events officer, has been offering speed-friending events every Tuesday and Thursday from 11am-12pm and 5pm-6pm to ‘combat social isolation and loneliness.’ During the sessions, students are placed in randomized groups of 3-4 people with prompt questions to encourage conversation. These groups are changed every 15 minutes with a 2-3 minute break between.
According to anonymous feedback forms provided at the end of each session, 30.2% of students felt nervous going into the session, with 27.9% feeling comfortable after Zakria introduced the session, and 23.3% feeling comfortable after the first breakout room.
The events have been popular amongst the students who have attended: 100% stated they would return for another speed-friending event, and 79.1% left with another student’s contact details. The events have been described as ‘a true blessing for mental health’ and ‘the most efficient way to make new friends.’ The event details are available in the Monday SU events newsletter.
Featured Photo Caption: Student Advice and Wellbeing and the Students’ Union have been working to provide additional support for students (Credit: SOAS).