‘Scotland can lead the world’: Fearless Femme founder on magazine's new student mental health campaign

As the feminist social enterprise launches a new campaign focusing on student mental health, founder Dr Eve Hepburn argues that the needs of different marginalised social groups should be addressed

MENTAL HEALTH strategies should be tailored to address the different needs of marginalised groups throughout society, the founder of the Scottish feminist magazine Fearless Femme has argued.

Speaking to CommonSpace, former university lecturer and Fearless Femme founder and CEO Dr Eve Hepburn made the intervention ahead of a new campaign on student mental health, at a time when the subject is experiencing heightened attention following a number of high-profile initiatives announced in the recent Programme for Government by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Speaking to Fearless Femme in its most recent issue, Sturgeon commented: “Recent years have seen a heightened awareness of mental health in society, and that is to be welcomed – and as First Minister, I’m particularly pleased that young people are playing a key part in considering how we improve our mental health.”

She added: “It is a huge issue – and I know it’s a huge issue for young people – and I am confident that together we can continue to make real changes.”

The new campaign, which will see issues of Fearless Femme distributed at Freshers events as students arrive or return to university this month, calls for the improvement of student mental health services both during and after university, echoing similar demands made by the National Union of Students Scotland.

The campaign also calls for greater mental health first aid training for academic and professional staff, and “a more honest narrative in universities about failure and managing expectations.”

This follows recent reports that over 45,000 students have accessed counselling services in Scottish universities over the last five years – a 76 per cent increase in demand. Additionally, a global study released last week showed one in three first-year university-level students report symptoms of a mental health disorder.

Announcing the campaign, Dr Hepburn said: “Our aim isn’t just to change the narrative on mental health – we also want to concretely change the political and policy context in which young adults are able to receive support and help. We’ll be doing this by publishing research reports that seek to influence government policy change at the national level through our research findings and recommendations. We believe that together, Scotland can lead the world in making real changes that make a real impact on people’s lives.”

READ MORE: New mental health strategy must tackle root causes and be tied to reducing economic inequality, experts argue

Speaking to CommonSpace, Dr Hepburn elaborated on the goals of the new campaign: “We’re trying to encourage students to look after their own mental health, given that we know there’s a crisis amongst the student population. We’re encouraging people to do whatever works for them – it could be running or yoga or going for a walk… We’ve also found at Fearless Femme that creative interventions really work for our readers and volunteers. We encourage young people to write, to paint, to share their own mental health stories, which many of our volunteers have found to be quite cathartic.”

The campaign will act as a precursor to a weightier policy intervention later this year, Hepburn explains: “We are currently putting together a research report that will be published in November. We’ve based it on – so far – seven research surveys and fifteen polls which have looked at various aspects of young people’s mental health, especially for students. We’ll be making quite specific recommendations for universities for how they can better support their students, and also after they leave university.

“We’ve done quite a bit of work around post-graduation depression, and we feel that this hasn’t really been tackled fully by universities. Our research has shown that quite a lot of graduates after they leave university go into a mental health dip, because they maybe lose the networks they were relying on; they may not be getting a job, they may have to move back in with their parents. We’re finding that particular period leaves students quite vulnerable to stress and mental health issues.”

“Our research has shown that quite a lot of graduates after they leave university go into a mental health dip, because they maybe lose the networks they were relying on.” Fearless Femme founder and CEO Dr Eve Hepburn

Ahead of the report’s publication, Hepburn gave an insight into some of its early recommendations: “One of our recommendations for supporting students while they’re still on campus is obviously more counselling support, but we want that to have a wraparound dimension as well. Some research I did last year on university mental health support showed that a lot of universities have created student wellbeing coaches, who can be the first port of call for students and who can signpost them to lots of different services, and be there for them after their counselling ends. So that would be a longer-term support for students – we think that more embedded approaches is important.

“We also think that universities should do a bit more about informing students about mental health services before they arrive, as we’ve seen that up to a third of freshers arriving have symptoms of mental health issues. I think universities should do more to prepare students for arriving at universities, which can often be a shock to the system.

“A lot of students move geographically to go to university – it might not be seamless moving from their old GP to their new one, so even providing more support in that is quite important.

READ MORE: ‘Fearless’ new Scottish organisation aims to challenge sexism and mental health stigma

“Something else we’re keen to shout about is to give academic and professional staff more mental health training, so they can understand mental health issues among students better and identify them better. I have some experience with that, given that I was a university lecturer for 10 years. I believe there is a lot of interest among academic staff in that.

“It’s not just focusing on a few people who can provide a mental health support service, but actually raising the general level of awareness among any staff that come into contact with students.”

Addressing recent concerns from Scottish experts that the mental health crisis can only be properly addressed if the underlying causes behind it – such as poverty and inequality – are also tackled, Dr Hepburn added: “I think when you’re looking at mental health and who is most likely to suffer from mental health issues, you’ll see quite strong correlations between people who are disadvantaged – be that living in poverty or in inequality – but also socially and culturally disadvantaged as well. More vulnerable groups to mental health issues are women, black and minority ethnic groups, care-experienced young people… People who have been marginalised.

“I think it might be useful going forward for the [Scottish] Government to be very aware of that – that there are some groups in society that are more vulnerable than others, and to see is there any ways in which they could potentially tailor mental health support services to different groups. I think that now we’re increasing awareness of mental health, we need to be more specific about multiple disadvantages and what might be causing those mental health issues.”

Picture courtesy of Fearless Femme

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