“I’ve never once regretted picking up the phone” – an interview with Durham Nightline Co-ordinator Ben Mensah, part two

Read part two here.


In the second part of my first interview for The Bubble, Durham’s Nightline Co-ordinator Ben Mensah and I discuss the state of mental health in Durham and the importance of opening up in a “culture of silence.”


Luke Alsford: We have already mentioned freshers, I noticed recently Nightline were running a campaign on social media on impostor syndrome. I wonder is that a particular issue that freshers face at this time of year?


Ben Mensah: I think imposter syndrome is something that’s very, very easy to experience, regardless of how much it’s necessarily addressed. I think one of the most pernicious elements of imposter syndrome, is that the more it is experienced, the less inclined somebody feels to be able to readily speak about it. You’ve got Durham as what is a pretty elite institution and [there are] a lot of people who have worked very hard to be here, but still don’t necessarily feel that they deserve that place. I think it’s an entirely valid feeling. I can’t necessarily comment on the commonality of it, because of the fact that it’s not necessarily spoken about enough. But I think what we’re trying to do is more raise the conversation around it. I think if it’s even experienced by one person it is worth addressing, and it’s worth being able to speak about. We’re trying to raise more of a culture of just being able to voice your experiences without feeling like you have to prove them or validate them. We see people liberated by just being able to speak about their situations. I think that’s quite applicable to impostor syndrome specifically, but I don’t want to say that it’s just limited to that.



LA: You ran a men’s mental health week campaign last June: is men’s mental health a particular issue you think needs addressing in Durham?


BM: I find it difficult to speak about Durham in broad strokes, just because I suppose there’s a lot of niche and nuance to all of this. I could give a broad stroke answer, but I’m not entirely sure that is the exact truth of the situation. What I can say is that speaking to people even in my personal life, I do think that there is still some sort of culture of men generally not feeling able to express what it is that they’re thinking and feeling and experiencing, for fear of judgment. Or perhaps just because they don’t think it’s the done thing. I suppose that does manifest itself in a lot of insidious and very harmful ways. Statistics even on male suicide being the biggest killer of men and I believe it’s even up to age 40, which is ridiculous. At the end of the day, I sort of witnessed it on a daily occurrence, there’s a very real problem. This culture of just swallow it down or hold back the tears, or, you know, men don’t cry. I think, in myriad, tiny, but deeply harmful ways we are perpetuating the cycles. And I think in a lot of ways, like we were saying with imposter syndrome, just being able to speak about things can be deeply meaningful.



LA: This seems to definitely be a theme from your answers that people are struggling to express themselves and struggling to show vulnerability. What can be done about this? Is this something that is just so ingrained in society? Or is there something we can do about it?


BM: That’s a good question. And a very, very big one. I think, that perhaps it is a false perspective that says, “We then need to fix this problem 100%, in one fell swoop, or we’ve failed.” More and more I see people in my life more readily able to express themselves and raise that conversation around mental health. And we’ve seen an advent of mental health campaigns on social media and more self-expression of people’s experiences of it. I think it is just raising a culture of normalcy about it, where the cases when people just express exactly how they’re feeling are not exceptions to the rule, but just a general occurrence. And I think there’s no single action I can take right now, which would entirely switch the culture. That conversation you have with somebody where you just get to the root of things and say, “No, how are you actually feeling?” and being able to voice that perhaps you’re not feeling great. Just being able to phone somebody up and say, “You know what, right now I’m struggling. And if it’s okay, I would love to be able to speak to you about it.” I think these tiny forms of rebellion against a culture of silence are meaningful, and they are making a difference, regardless of whether or not it can be measured.



LA: The essence of Nightline is in the name: a phone service from 9pm to 7am. What is it about night-time, which is associated with people socialising, at the pub and clubbing, that there is this other side that people are drawn to needing to call Nightline and talk?


BM: I think, the sort of perspective I tend to approach it from, is that at night people [are] most likely to experience the general feeling of being alone or lonely. In that, if they’re not necessarily out, clubbing, and getting wild and doing everything that they’ve been told they’re going to do at university, they feel that something is lacking. And you also see, I suppose, as you get later on into the night, people feel less able to reach out and contact people that they’re disturbing. And so that only sort of accentuates and compounds that feeling of isolation. I’m not saying that these feelings are restricted to the night-time, I’m just aware that if people wake up in the middle of the night and desperately need someone to talk to, you may not necessarily feel comfortable phoning a friend or knocking on the door of a housemate. So I suppose that’s the gap that we’re trying to bridge. It’s not to say that all problems are limited to just the night. But it is to say that perhaps people don’t necessarily feel that they have the same support structures at night as they would throughout the day. So that’s just our personal mission, I suppose.



LA: What’s your assessment of the organised mental health support that the University itself offers? Is that sufficient for students?


BM: Well, I’m aware that if it was completely sufficient, there would be no demand for a service like ours: which is entirely student-led and not funded by the university directly. We are essentially an autonomous organisation. I can’t comment on people’s experiences of the support services through Durham. And I think the individuals that are involved in trying to make the support structures in Durham even better, I think they’ve got a great mission. And I’m proud of what it is that they’re trying to do. I’m just not sure that I can comment on it as a whole because I seem to have anecdotally spoken to people who have either had great times with it, or perhaps have felt that it’s severely lacking. And so, I think I would rather abstain from making comments. I do think that it’s probably quite a meaningful thing, that the support structures at Durham seem to lean so heavily on students and the passion of students to support other students. A lot of the help people seem to receive when I speak to them, does seem to come from welfare teams, [or] from services like ours. Whereas the university itself, in terms of employed and paid staff, seem to constitute a relatively small part of the pie chart. I’m aware that it does put a lot of pressure on students who are passionate about mental health to be there and balance their degrees and being able to support other students. Is it a system that probably needs some reform? Yes, but I don’t want to specifically comment on the university’s actions.



LA: Is there an ideal world in which Nightline is no longer needed? Because we’ve all improved our communication and we’re better listeners? Or will there always be a space and a need for Nightline?


BM: Wow. Right, perhaps this is going into the philosophy of charities and non-profits. But I once read somewhere that the end goal of any charity should be its own extinction. And so, I think in terms of practical things, like being able to eradicate smallpox, or something like that, you see a concrete goal with a concrete end, when you can say, “The world’s vaccinated, we’ve eradicated smallpox: problem solved,” we can disband this charity. Mental health, for me, is a bit more of a complicated one in terms of attaching a concrete goal. Because everybody has mental health, right? Like physical health, it is going to go up and down at different points: we’re human, we’re changeable. And so long as people remain having moods and days that are good, and days that are bad, which seems like a natural part of the human condition, there will always be some space for a service like ours. That’s not to say that I would not love a world and a community where that responsibility is diminished. And where people feel way more able to just reach out to their own support structures and don’t necessarily feel that they have to come to these conversations in times of crisis. But I don’t necessarily see a world in which there is no demand at all for a service like ours. As much as I would love there to be, I would love there to be. Perhaps that’s me being a tiny bit pessimistic, but to me, that just seems like realism.


Featured imageCWhatPhotos at Flickr

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