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Student Reflections on the Bristol Wellbeing Conference

The public outreach conference was conceived in late December 2019 and was envisioned as the launch for an annual series of conferences celebrating Wellbeing research and practice across Bristol. Our (BILT, SU Wellbeing Network and Education Network) hope was that the conference would create a space for people working on or interested in mental health and wellbeing to come together, network, collaborate, and connect.

We aimed to galvanise and centralize wellbeing-related practices, initiatives, and research going on across the city.

Over the day we were inspired by a burgeoning community of students, academics, creatives, and wellbeing practitioners, all working on innovative ways to alleviate mental illness and barriers to student flourishing in the future.

We were honoured to host Dr Dominique Thompson a TEDX speaker and wellness consultant as our keynote speaker. Thompson spoke sensitively about “Young People’s Mental Health in the 21st Century: A Perfect Storm?” to round up this action-packed day. Themes around perfectionism, competitiveness, and fears of failure tormenting students. As well as reflecting on how these might impede on student performance rather than facilitate creativity and risk-taking.

Alongside our more research-based activities, participants enjoyed a whole host of creative workshops from drama therapy to breathing soundscapes, music, and yoga.

The wellbeing themes covered throughout the day were wide and varied. Contentious issues were not overlooked as participants contributed to the debate on Drugs, Alcohol, and Mental Health: A Harm Reduction approach or Zero Tolerance? with Dr Alison Golden-Wright.

We also hosted a deeply honest and touching panel discussion on the theme of coping with Grief and Illness which feels particularly pertinent in these uncertain times of COVID-19. Perhaps this topic is something that the University agenda ought to touch on more often so as to prepare students and staff for the unexpected and uncontrollable facts of life.

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Grief and Illness Panel (from left to right): Gigi Auslebrook, Michael Pearson, Stephanie Clark, Lucy Selman, and Havi Carel.

Gigi Auslebrook, who was representing CoppaFeel’s cancer coffee mornings throughout the day and participated in this panel, spoke openly about her own experiences of grief whilst at University. She writes:

 “I thought the conference was great, the turnout was excellent, and I enjoyed participating in the panel discussion. I was so privileged to talk alongside Michael Pearson (deputy head of counselling), Lucy Selman (academic in palliative care) and Havi Carel (philosopher on death and illness). It was great listening to people speaking so openly about grief and illness and essentially normalising the conversation around it, as death feels like such a taboo subject to talk about. Participating in the panel helped me to feel less alone with my experiences which was a relief. I would have really appreciated a conference like this taking place last year when I was going through everything. It would have helped me so much. I would strongly recommend hosting another panel/ workshop/ talk on grief and illness next year as it still affects so many of us! I spoke to Havi more personally after the panel for a more in-depth discussion. It was comforting to hear about her experiences and discuss mine so openly with her. Also, I was able to speak to wellbeing advisors who didn’t know about my cancer coffee morning which was great. Connecting with likeminded people was the most important part.”

One second-year Physics student said the conference helped her “to feel excited about the future of mental health” she went on to explain how the day enabled her to “make connections, make plans, and make stuff happen”. Providing a networking space for wellbeing practitioners across Bristol is a good starting point for enhancing collaboration and creativity across services and support groups in Bristol. Another student interning at Off the Record, a charity supporting young people’s mental health, described how the conference was a useful opportunity to network with local initiatives.

The most rewarding part of the conference from an organisational point of view was entering into enlivening conversations with fellow students and colleagues about what motivated them to attend or participate on conference day. After weeks of back-and-forth emails trying to organise the day, to have some face to face contact with approachable and friendly folk. All of the people I spoke to seemed willing to open up about their experiences, their hopes, and their take-home lessons from the conference.

As we turn towards digital resources to educate our community, may we also remind ourselves of the inherent value of face-to-face encounters, as they can often leave a more lasting impression on people looking for support and connection. After the pandemic subsides, may we better appreciate our interpersonal encounters and public spaces where open dialogue can happen. Let us set time aside from our desktop screens and emails so we can reclaim the power of opening up to each other about “how we are really doing” as so many people were doing in close proximity to one another at the conference (something which we may have taken for granted at the time).  

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Owen Barlow, Student Fellow.

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