Alumni profile - Charlotte Watson
I think it’s really important to acknowledge that it will have been exceedingly hard for most people to maintain good mental health for the duration of the last year, and that struggling is a normal response to a set of circumstances which can be massively challenging and have been, for some people, traumatic.
(Politics BA, 2016)
Why did you choose to study BA Politics at Queen Mary?
I was originally planning to study English at university and sat all of my university interviews as if I was going to do an English degree! It was only after I got into Queen Mary that I decided to switch to Politics, based on both how much I enjoyed studying it at A-Level and the breadth of the modules on offer at Queen Mary.
As the first person from my family to go to university, Queen Mary felt by far the most inclusive university that I visited for an open day, and unlike other universities I’d looked at it was clear that people from a variety of different backgrounds were part of the academic community. Being a campus university also made me feel like it would be a lot easier to meet people and build friendships – which I turned out to be right about!
What did you enjoy most about your degree and what were some of your most memorable moments?
In terms of the degree itself, I was surprised to find out that some of the subject areas I didn’t think I’d feel as passionate about ended up being some of the areas that I took the most interest in; for example, a course in my first year on Political Analysis introduced me to a lot of concepts that I’d use as a postgraduate. The range of subjects available to study was a real highlight of the degree, and I really appreciated there being a focus on both theory and application. The structure of the degree allowed me to take elements of study that I wanted to focus on and combine them, and I enjoyed the level of freedom we had to examine and deconstruct established ideas.
In terms of memorable moments, winning the David Black Prize for Best Student in the field of International Politics in 2014 is pretty high up there. I think it was hugely helpful in solidifying the idea that as a first-in-family student, my ideas were as legitimate as people who might have felt more comfortable and at home in a university setting from the start.
Can you describe your career path to date and tell us about your role at YoungMinds?
I worked alongside my degree from the start of my second year at Queen Mary. I worked in Infusion next to Drapers (I don’t think it’s called Infusion anymore!) part-time until the end of my degree, and after approaching a local MP at home for a week of work experience in the summer before my third year, I then got back in contact with her to see whether it would be possible to join her office as an intern.
Luckily, her office had space to hire me, so I started part-time alongside my existing job in April 2016 and became a full-time Parliamentary intern two weeks before graduating with a First! The Politics course at Queen Mary has a fantastic opportunity for students to have direct experience in Parliament, but unfortunately due to having to work I couldn’t take it up – so I was delighted to get my start this way. Working in Parliament for a year, I lived at home to save money to afford to undertake an MA and was the first point of contact for all the work that the MP was undertaking in her Shadow Ministerial role, as well as helping with constituency casework and general policy queries. It was great experience and very fast-paced!
I then joined Goldsmiths, University of London to undertake an MA in Cities and Society, while working part-time in Parliament as a constituency caseworker on issues such as housing, benefits and immigration. For my MA thesis, I examined the relationship between residents of a housing estate at risk of demolition and the local authority that was advocating for its demolition; and whether it is possible for non-adversarial relationships to be built between the state and citizens during estate redevelopment projects. I graduated from Goldsmiths with a Distinction and continued to refine my thesis for publication. In September 2020, it was accepted for publication in the academic journal Housing, Theory and Society.
I have also worked at a public affairs and public relations agency, where I took on clients in fields such as education, food redistribution and public health, and currently work at the young people’s mental health charity YoungMinds as Policy and Parliamentary Officer. In this role, I lead on the building and maintaining of Parliamentary influence and relationships and contribute towards the formation of policy – with a particular focus on our education policy.
What was it that attracted you to working for a mental health charity?
Based on experiences that I’d had in past jobs, I knew that I wanted to look for work where, when I finished at the end of the day, I felt like I’d been part of something that contributes positively to society rather than just focusing on making a profit. I’m really interested in looking at education policy and health inequalities and working in young people’s mental health allows me to focus a lot of energy on these areas. YoungMinds is absolutely committed to centering the voices of young people in all of its work as an organisation, and I think that having a meaningful commitment to do with rather than do to is something I found, and find, one of the best things about working there.
What are some of your interests outside of work?
Outside of my full-time job, I write on culture and politics in a freelance capacity and have been published by outlets such as Novara Media. I also enjoy running and strength training, and when it’s not a global pandemic I love finding new clubs, pubs and things to see at off-West End theatre. I love modernist architecture and enjoy going for city walks to discover interesting buildings; and if I’m not doing any of those things, I’m putting together playlists and annoying my friends with them.
Why do you think it is important to consciously acknowledge and spread the word about Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW)?
As much as there has been a significant improvement in understanding of mental health over the last few years, there’s still a lot of stigma and prejudice around a) having a diagnosed mental health condition and b) your mental health not being in a good place. Mental health doesn’t just include diagnosable conditions, and it’s very likely that most people will have a period of time when their mental health isn’t great at some point in their life! Awareness raising campaigns like Time to Change have had a really big impact on furthering public knowledge of mental health and initiatives like Mental Health Awareness Week carry on that work really well. I think that in order to change or improve something, you have to be able to name it and understand it, and I think that improved awareness and understanding is the first step in being able to create a society where there is true parity of esteem between mental and physical health.
I would point any university to the University Mental Health Charter, which takes a holistic approach to examining what good mental health looks like for everyone in the academic community.
In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, the theme for this year’s MHAW is ‘Nature’. Research has shown that being surrounded by nature has been one of the most popular ways in which people have sustained good mental health during this challenging time. How have you personally tried to sustain good mental health throughout the pandemic?
I think it’s really important to acknowledge that it will have been exceedingly hard for most people to maintain good mental health for the duration of the last year, and that struggling is a normal response to a set of circumstances which can be massively challenging and have been, for some people, traumatic. I was very lucky inasmuch that I’ve kept my job, live in a well-connected and central location with my partner, and don’t have any serious health or accessibility issues that have curtailed my ability to move around. For people who have been shielding, who have lost jobs or experienced grief or trauma, have had to spend a lot of time with people who they don’t get on with, or don’t feel able to be their full selves at home, there are of course a whole new set of challenges.
Speaking from that position of immense privilege, in normal life I like to keep really busy and don’t tend to spend much time indoors, so keeping busy was a real priority for me. I’ve felt grateful for the opportunity to get up before work every day and work out, and especially for the chance to run a lot more frequently than before. Having the chance to get fitter and stronger has been great, and I think especially given the circumstances I feel very thankful to be able to do that.
Keeping mindful of having the opportunity to still do fun things has been really helpful. In the most recent lockdown, I’ve been lucky enough to live in walking distance of friends so have been going for lots of walks with them, and I’ve discovered new parts of London I’d never been to before! Keeping a routine has been particularly helpful for me – but again, I’m aware that there are a lot of factors that could impact people’s ability to do any of the things I’ve listed above.
How does your current job, or any projects that you are currently involved in, allow you to be an advocate for mental health/actively help those who are experiencing problems with their mental health?
In my current job I work as part of the policy team, and our work advocates for all young people under the age of 25 who have experience of poor mental health or a mental health condition. This involves constant collaboration with young people with lived experience of mental health conditions, and directly liaising with government departments, senior officials, MPs and organisations such as the NHS, to campaign for policy outcomes that will improve the mental health of young people. One area that we’re currently focusing on is the importance of early intervention for young people’s mental health outcomes, and you can follow our work, here!
One of the aims of MHAW is to reduce the stigma associated with mental health that can stop people from asking for help. In your opinion, what are some of the misconceptions associated with mental health and what do you think needs to be done to challenge these misconceptions?
I think one of the most damaging misconceptions is the idea that people who live with a mental health condition or who are experiencing poor mental health are somehow damaged. People with mental health conditions and who are experiencing poor mental health can, and do, absolutely live fulfilling lives and given that experiencing poor mental health at some point in your lifetime is so likely, it’s really problematic to think that this isn’t possible.
For me personally, one of the biggest misconceptions is the individualisation of mental health. There is a clear evidence base that social factors such as poverty, racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia have a huge detrimental impact on mental health and I think the biggest thing that can be done to challenge this is to realise that wellbeing is a collective endeavour, and that improving the material conditions that a lot of people experience is a major part of responding to any issue related to mental health!
Do you have any mental health advocate role models or anyone you admire for being open about their personal mental health experiences?
I wouldn’t say one particular person, but what I do think is brilliant is when people in positions of influence feel able to share their experience of living with mental health conditions that are less well understood and that are still more stigmatised. I’ve been really pleased to see mainstream media outlets give more time over the last couple of years to people with conditions such as psychotic conditions and personality disorders and I think that given there is often a lot of misunderstanding and judgement, that can only be a good thing. However, awareness and material change are not the same thing, so I am always pleased when people use their platforms to push for meaningful policy changes that widen access and understanding for everyone!
Based on your own experiences, is there anything you feel the University can do to improve the support and resources available for students who are experiencing problems with their mental health?
I would point any university to the University Mental Health Charter, which takes a holistic approach to examining what good mental health looks like for everyone in the academic community. Beyond that, I think recognition that there’s no one approach or resource or pathway that will work for everyone, especially a diverse student body in which no two students have the same experiences prior to and while at university is vital. Centering understanding, non-judgement and meeting students where they are is necessary and building a culture of openness around mental health is definitely a key part of that.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Charlotte or engage her in your work, please contact Nathalie at firstname.lastname@example.org.