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October 8, 2018 | by  | in Editorial | [ssba]

Light Not Heat

Last week I talked to Gerard, head of student counselling. I really like Gerard. He’s one of the few staff I’ve interacted with who tries hard to engage with student media, and communicate to students. He always makes time for us to try help us understand the situation around student counselling and student mental health. His constant refrain is “I’m trying to bring light, not heat, to the situation”. I respect that.

And every time I speak to him, he checks in on how I’m doing, and pays attention to my answer. That base level of care is something I admire a lot, and something that I can see would be beneficial in everyone’s interactions with each other.
We talked for over an hour, about the whole halls-asking-students-to-leave-after-a-suicide-attempt-thing. It was emotional. He nearly cried. I nearly cried.
I’m really grateful to Gerard for talking to us. The level of gratitude I feel is a little hard to explain, unless I give you some background on the University Comms department, and how the uni works with student media.
So let me tell you about how we report on stories that are to do with the University. Every time we hear about something going on, whether it’s about RA training or getting a Queer Support Coordinator, we have to send all the questions to the Comms department. We’re not allowed to approach lecturers or staff asking them for comment. If we do, we get a “sorry we’re not allowed to talk” from the staff member in question, and a stern rebuke from Comms.
So, if we email Comms asking to talk to a specific staff member, all they have to do is say “no”, and that’s the end of that.
And last week, that’s exactly what happened. I emailed Comms to ask if I could talk to Gerard about the “responding to suicidal behaviour by students” policy.
Within the hour, they replied. “No you cannot.”

And that was the end of that. I felt frustrated. Like everyone, I just wanted answers.
So when Gerard called us the next day, saying that he was happy to talk, I don’t know what magic he had worked to get Comms to change their mind. But I was happy for it. I, too, wish to bring “light not heat” to a situation.
Gerard said a colleague of his reckons that NZ’s increasing suicide rate can be directly attributed to increased media reporting on suicide, and our current attitude that suicide is something that needs to be “talked about”. Nothing concrete, no hard evidence. But the reasoning, he said, was: you make it sound like the system’s broken, and people who already feel bad about things will just think that it’s hopeless. And then the people who are doing good work, counselling, will feel like they’re getting hated on, and quit. But at the same time, we need to talk about it. Otherwise how are things gonna change?
Maybe the way to do it isn’t to focus on the problem, but on the solution. That’s hard, with something like mental health. There are so many facets, and no one knows all the answers. But it’s doable. Change the conversation so it’s about wellbeing, about care, about the things that bring happiness and fulfillment, and how to get more of that.

We could change all our conversations to focus on what we could do better, instead of bitching about what sucks.
I get that we and Comms work inevitably in opposition. Their job is to protect the University’s reputation, and our job is to expose the dirt. That’s what you’d see if you look at the negatives.
But in a sense, we’re also working together. All we both want is a better university, after all. And if we can communicate well, and bring each other greater understanding of what’s going on, well that’s looking at the positives. That’s something we can strive towards.
I can envision a university where everyone on staff is as open and as communicative as Gerard. Where, if we don’t like something that the uni’s doing, they explain to us why it’s the way it is, and we can work together to figure out how it could improve.


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