Talking is versatile: we chat about the weather, global politics, cricket, or our latest purchase from IKEA. Most importantly, talking is the most effective way of letting someone know what you’re going through or that you need help.
As much as we might notice a friend’s behaviour change or their mood dip, we can only assume until they talk and we listen. As students, especially in the bustling city of Bristol, it can be rare to find the time to slow down and facilitate these conversations. Over the first 18 or so years of our lives, whether it be family, loved ones, or childhood friends, most of us are lucky to develop a group of people we can trust. When we depart for university, we can feel displaced from that group and a comforting hug can be anything from an hourlong train journey to a ten-hour flight across the world.
Then, suddenly, we expect ourselves to dive headfirst into an exciting and nerve-wracking transition to higher education, one during which there is bound to be some bumps along the road even without the once-in-a-generation pandemic.
We all need a space we can trust to talk.
That space must feel safe, open, and non-judgmental. I remember arriving in Bristol five years ago and being excited to express the type of personality I saw as my ‘best’. Fun, outgoing, sharp-minded – a total ‘yes person’. The flipside of that was that I felt I couldn’t show any vulnerability. I pushed myself with part-time jobs, passion projects, and social commitments on top of my degree until, two years in, I buckled under the pressure.
At the time of my second-year exams, my dad was in intensive care after a heart operation. I was already struggling with my studies because of the extra commitments I had taken on. I failed all four of my summer exams and suddenly felt the façade I had created bludgeoned to a pulp by failure.
When I was more honest with those around me, I found new paths which were full of support. My personal tutor was superb and arranged extenuating circumstances for resits regarding the health of my dad and myself. I become closer to both parents and valued that bond more going forward. My university friendships became stronger, and I found that the ones sticking were mutually supportive and more fulfilling.
That was not something I knew or valued when I was 18, but I believe the culture and services on campus have progressed since then. Last year was again a challenge for me as I juggled all sorts with my final year of my undergraduate degree. This time, though, I had a support network: my family, my tutor, my friends, my school wellbeing advisors, eventually a counsellor, and a group called Talk Club.
Talk Club is a mutual aid support group which – along with PROJECT:TALK – will hopefully make it easier for students to find a space they can trust, and talk. Isaac (my closest university friend) and I started the UoB branch in early 2019 after meeting Ben Akers, one of Talk Club’s founders. It has since grown nationally (and internationally) but the UoB group remains a small, rotating cast of male-identifying students. There’s rarely more than six of us (lucky these days), but that’s five other students listening to you talk about how you feel out of ten today, and five other students to listen to and make you feel part of something during difficult periods. It’s not therapy, but it’s an amazing support network.
The most important aspect of both Talk Club and PROJECT:TALK is that they encourage the right type of conversations in the right space. I can talk for days about weather, politics, cricket, or the £22 shoe cabinet I got from IKEA (honestly, look it up, it really is mind-blowing), but, for the sake of my mental fitness, I need the exercise the muscle that talks and listens about feelings.
Patrick Sullivan, Talk Club
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