About thirty years ago, I picked up a book in a second-hand shop which I’ve gone back to time after time. It’s called Pandaemonium – which was, of course, Milton’s invented name for Satan’s palace in Paradise Lost. It’s by Humphrey Jennings, a pioneering documentary filmmaker who died in 1950 at the early age of 43. Lindsay Anderson – a great filmmaker of the next generation – called Jennings “the only real poet that British cinema has yet produced”. Pandaemonium is a compilation of how people through the preceding two or three centuries saw the coming of machines, whether in the countryside, in towns, in workplaces or in homes, sometimes as promise but far more often as destabilising threats, undermining individuals, communities, societies. Running through the material which Jennings collected in Pandaemonium is a sense that, for the last three centuries, individuals have always had to navigate a world which was changing in difficult, unpredictable ways and their reactions have been complex and challenging.
And that’s clearly the case now. Our lives are changing fast, in often confusing ways. It’s been said for generations, and it runs through Pandaemonium, that technology is dissolving traditional community and social bonds, but the impacts of digital technology – that mobile phone which is never off, buzzing away with an app notification, a tweet, an email – seem to be accelerating. Economic challenges abound – certainly for our students since the final abolition of maintenance grants, and who face a difficult transition to the labour market. The news – whether we receive it in traditional form on paper, through the now-equally traditional radio or TV or on our phones – is filled with the news of a troubled world: the humanitarian crises in Syria and elsewhere, the uncertainties of Brexit, the bizarre spectacle of the Trump presidency – on and on and on. Pandaemonium, perhaps.
In this world, it’s hardly surprising that we are increasingly concerned with mental health. Is it worse? Are we more able to diagnose difficulties? Do the economic, social, political and cultural challenges of our time make us more attuned to problems? Perhaps these questions are irrelevant: we do need to respond. The University has invested increasing resource in mental health support, and 1 March is University Mental Health Day.
The theme for this year is community. The campaign aims to empower all members of the University community to be active in supporting mental health by improving students’ awareness of support and developing the capability to seek it, to tackle loneliness, and to promote a sense of belonging. This is about a sense of belonging not just to the University, but to the community of Sheffield too. This is an important ingredient for happiness and to enable students to be fully involved in the life of the University. We aim to promote diversity of student stories at SHU, especially for mature students whose numbers are significant. The mental health team will send a message to students who don’t feel that they meet the profile of the ‘average’ student – after all – who does? The campaign also aims to improve understanding among students and staff of the role the environment and community can play in protecting student mental health, with information about what is going on locally and how staff and students can get involved, including the benefits to be gained from volunteering. And the campaign seeks to raise awareness of the specific challenges students face with regards to support for their mental health, encouraging the University to work collaboratively and successfully with other health providers. There will be a focus on making information available about local health services that have good links with SHU and how to access their support.
There will be a programme of events throughout the week, and information will be available at City and Collegiate campuses on 1 March. The keynote event on 1 March is ‘The Stranger on the Bridge’, led by Jonny Benjamin MBE and Neil Laybourn; their journey together began in 2008 when Neil talked Jonny out of taking his own life on Waterloo Bridge in London.
Just a few days after University Mental Health Day – and perhaps, in some way, connected – is the beginning of SHU Fest, our own week-long celebration of the talent and diversity of our students and staff. Join us for live performances, interactive workshops and social events across the University including film screenings, music, dancing, craft, cookery and more, which starts on 5 March. SHU Fest has been taking place since 2010, and this year’s features 39 different performances, activities and events. Amongst other things, we will celebrate the culture of Kurdistan, Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Nigeria with student performances. The SHU Fest team are proud of our collaboration with the Refugee Council and we will welcome a group of recent refugees who have formed a choir and will perform at SHU Fest. By popular demand, we have a number of SHU’s very talented professors performing including Terrence Perera, Roger Eccleston, and Chris Sammon. On Wednesday 7 March we have the SHU Fest quiz, which has been a part of SHU Fest since 2012 and raised almost £3,000 for charity; proceeds from this year’s quiz will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Society. Do go along to SHU Fest events. One of the most potent ways to strengthen positive mental health is to strengthen community, and you strengthen community by participating.