May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Here at Hype, we think it’s such an important topic to highlight. Students have so many life pressures and stresses, and sometimes our mental health can really get affected. We wanted to speak to Jess Leigh, @jesssjleigh a student activist that made it into the Top 10 for our Frontline campaign that aimed to highlight the amazing work of our students.
Hype: Hey Jess, it’s great to talk to you! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you get up to please?
Jess: Hello, it is amazing to talk to you too! So as you know my name is Jess, I am 21 and my pronouns are she/her. I am currently studying International Development at the University of Sussex. I have been in the activist world since about 15, so over 6 years now. I started as a very shy girl who was trying to figure out their place in the world. I started with small activism such as volunteering with charities such as Plan International UK and the British Youth Council and as I started to learn more I remember getting more and more aware of all the injustices in the world.
Fast forward 6 years later I now work for and with 3 sexual violence charities teaching young people about topics such as sexual violence, consent, Public Sexual Harassment and so much more. I work with young people in schools, and youth clubs and give talks around the world. I am also a trainer and a consultant for mental health and PSH. Specialising in work around participation and uplifting the voices of the most marginalised young people in policy, schools and so much more. I have worked with the likes of UN Women, MyLifeMySay, and other globally recognised charities as well as hosting training, workshops, keynotes, and more!
Hype: Can you tell us more about your work with Young Minds UK?
Jess: So I currently work as a trainer consultant for Young Minds. This means that I train professionals in mental health and participation. I also work for them on a variety of projects with different charities and partnerships. I started with them as a young person on a project advising NHS services on their mental health approach and then got this permanent job at Young Minds.
Hype: Your Instagram has a brilliant feed of images of your life, with woven-in activism. What kind of topics do you post about?
Jess: I post a lot about a variety of topics, a lot of which aren’t talked about by mainstream media. I try to be proactive rather than reactive to current events. I also like to think I am really open with lots of my life and trying to destigmatise topics like imposter syndrome and loneliness. Basically, it is all about starting and then maintaining a conversation. As an openly young queer woman in activism, queerness is a topic that has greatly affected me over the years so that is also a large part of my Instagram feed. Finally, I am a big believer in amplifying resources and others voices as I will never have all the answers and strongly believe we all have more learning and growing to do within activism and general life.
Hype: Why do you think it’s so important that we speak openly about mental health, especially on social media?
Jess: From a young age I have struggled with mental health, seeing it as a bad thing and a negative attribute that makes me a weaker person. But by talking about it on social media we can move from a “whats wrong with you,” to “what has happened to you.” Social media is a place that is a place of possibility, both good and bad. Right now social media can so often be filled with negativity and toxicity, with us posting a highlight reel of our life. When in reality our life is full of ups and downs, good and bad and complicated moments. We are all scared of being vulnerable, of showing the sides of ourselves that so often hide in the dark. But only by bringing them out into the light will we create a place of acceptance and hope.
Hype: How do you think we can help to combat the stigma that often surrounds mental health issues?
Jess: Talking about it is the first step, we all have an individual responsibility to tackle the stigma around mental health issues. Whether it has a chat with your friends, family or colleagues or organise an event to talk to people about mental health.
But also it is so important to acknowledge that we as individual people do not hold all the responsibilities on our own. It also comes down to an institutional and system level. Currently, the CAMHS system or the way the government tackles mental health is not good enough and needs a complete system overhaul. Having mental health issues is hard enough as it is, coupled with the stigma, a broken system and more makes it even more difficult.
Hype: What advice would you give to any student who may be experiencing mental health issues?
Jess: You are never alone, even if it feels like you have in the deepest, darkest and cruellest of places. You can be surrounded by hundreds of people and still feel lonely. I know it sounds cringy but follows your gut and find things that fill your heart and soul with complete and utter joy and make sure there are those things throughout your life. You deserve love, you deserve happiness and overall you deserve this life.
Also, this is a really hard one, but to not compare yourself to others and their struggles. Whether you are drawing in 6ft of water or 10ft of water, the amount does not matter, you are still drowning… You do not have to be at a breaking point to reach out for help. You should not have to reach a point where you feel like you are breaking to get help. I wish I could go back to my younger self and tell her it is going to be okay, that there are people who love her and care for her and are cheering her on from the sidelines to do well.