Alumni

Alumni profile - Rawan Hassan

Across the globe, 2020 saw a rise in the acknowledgement of human right violations, with many suffering disproportionally at the hands of unjust governments and a pandemic. Carrying on with the theme of amplifying voices, I started a petition against the inhumane treatment of migrant groups in Cyprus and mobilised a community of athletes to pledge unprecedented mileage to raise funds for drastically needed aid in Yemen.

(Psychology BSc, 2019)

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Why did you study BSc Psychology at Queen Mary? What sparked your interest in this specific degree?

Coming from a family background of medical consultants and pharmacists, I saw an emphasis being placed on the science of products, natural or synthetic, to heal. But I was always drawn to the immense healing power of holding space for others, consciously sharing, and honouring lived experiences. Understanding how we construct the world and our experience of it within our mind, especially during childhood, can unlock a different level of wellness and accentuate treatment plans being tailored. Naturally, and maybe a little out of defiance, I found my calling to study psychology as a degree.

What did you enjoy most about studying Psychology and were there any academics that had a strong influence on shaping your time and studies?

I loved the diversity of the course, that was a major selling point for me! Queen Mary has a warm, community feel to it, and I was extremely happy with my choice, despite not having visited the university before starting my degree. I would definitely say Professor Pluess’s first ever lecture on environmental sensitivity, in the first semester of my first year, to this day remains a catalyst to my multidisciplinary approach to cultivating and evaluating resilience in policy and practice.

What was special about your time at Queen Mary?

A highlight of my time at Queen Mary was co-authoring a peer-reviewed article that was published in the scientific journal, NeuroImage! Having a publication so early on in my career and even before my graduation is such a humbling experience, and I am forever grateful for my research team and supervisor for facilitating this contribution.

Cliché maybe, but I was lucky to graduate not only with peers, but with lifelong friends that I speak to everyday years on! I remember seeing university posters about ‘meeting your tribe’, the ones with a group of diverse students sitting on a patch of freshly grazed green grass by the vibrant Canalside in the sun… Well, the first part is true, although the London sun – maybe not so much!

I feel the diversity of my experiences, delivering projects in culturally sensitive settings, activism, and advocacy, really prepared me for my role at Consortium for Street Children, where I assist with the network development and the many projects of our members working with street-connected youth worldwide.

Can you describe your career path to date and touch on your current role at Consortium For Street Children?

Whilst completing my studies, I volunteered as a mental health worker in Indonesia, delivering mental health and psychosocial support in a psychiatric facility and schools for SEN children. I assisted in a research project led by Queen Mary and Médecins du Monde in Beirut, investigating refugee children’s responses to war and displacement and facilitated positive psychotherapy workshops for refugee children in Greece. Although my interest in NGOs and resilience-building was strong, I moved on to work briefly in the NHS within a CAMHS unit for adolescent mental health as an assistant psychologist before fully venturing into the charity sector.

I started off at a UK mental health charity, encouraging community integration of individuals with disabilities through building on personal interests and essential life skills. I then transitioned to an international NGO, focusing on relief aid for humanitarian crises. As part of the Jordan deployment team, I hosted charity events, advocated for refugee children’s rights and ran fundraising campaigns to directly deliver aid to displaced families on the ground. During this time, my interest in resilience-building in policy peaked so much that my career path would shift to focus on the legal frameworks to child development and welfare. I pursued an MA in International Child Studies at King’s College London, a degree that effortlessly united my love for child psychology and law. There, I dedicated my thesis to evaluating the absence of migrant children’s voices in resilience-building policies of local and international stakeholders in Jordan.

Across the globe, 2020 saw a rise in the acknowledgement of human right violations, with many suffering disproportionally at the hands of unjust governments and a pandemic. Carrying on with the theme of amplifying voices, I started a petition against the inhumane treatment of migrant groups in Cyprus and mobilised a community of athletes to pledge unprecedented mileage to raise funds for drastically needed aid in Yemen. I feel the diversity of my experiences, delivering projects in culturally sensitive settings, activism, and advocacy, really prepared me for my role at Consortium for Street Children, where I assist with the network development and the many projects of our members working with street-connected youth worldwide.

How does your current job allow you to be an advocate for mental health/actively help those who are experiencing problems with their mental health?

The Consortium for Street Children advocates for street-connected children’s rights, which includes their healthy development and protection from harm. As a network organisation, we work alongside members to implement programs in line with legal obligations that promote child welfare: an important component, and at times, prerequisite to a healthy mind. This year’s International Day for Street Children campaign centred on #AccessForStreetChildren, an issue that has become exacerbated by the pandemic, with many struggling to cope as they are continually turned away from help they are entitled to. By mobilising our network members in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to join this global movement, I am actively committed to removing barriers that prevent street children from seeking refuge in safe environments, free from abuse and violence, and where their physical and mental wellbeing is a priority.

Why do you think it is important to consciously acknowledge and spread the word about Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW)?

Acknowledging MHAW is great because for once, there is a collective focal point on prioritising wellness. This may be in the form of people speaking up about their experiences or others being genuinely keen to make space for those stories and build meaningful connections. I think MHAW is an excellent opportunity for the unlearning of certain attitudes and stereotypes not just towards diagnosis but unhealthy habits, too.

Acknowledging MHAW is great because for once, there is a collective focal point on prioritising wellness. This may be in the form of people speaking up about their experiences or others being genuinely keen to make space for those stories and build meaningful connections. It is an excellent opportunity for the unlearning of certain attitudes and stereotypes not just towards diagnosis but unhealthy habits, too.

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?

Although I was physically separated from my friends and family, I recognise my privilege in being able to step outside and feel safe at home, a reality that was not necessarily the case for all. If you’re reading this right now, regardless of how you looked after yourself, I want you to know that I’m proud of you! Thank you for showing up for yourself every day.

For me, running was one of my go-tos during the lockdowns. I had signed up to run my first ever half marathon just before the pandemic hit, on behalf of CALM, a mental health charity raising awareness about male suicide. On one of the toughest weeks, I decided to go on a run which then became the Hackney Half. There was no physical cheer, no crowd, no noise - just the loud thoughts in my head. In many ways, this was a salute to those navigating difficult thoughts and emotions worldwide. I ran in solidarity with you. In other ways, it was a token of appreciation to the power of the mind. The courage that is not always a lion’s roar. It keeps us keep going, reminding us to stay curious and open ourselves up to a different possibility. After all, we don’t know what is around the corner.

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?

I think one of the most common misconceptions I’ve come across is the idea that mental health exists in a binary: you are either mentally ill or mentally healthy.

People can still struggle without being clinically depressed. People can experience mental health challenges and be perfectly capable of restoring balance. This division is birthed from the dominance of Eurocentric, diagnostic-focused approaches to mental health which do not accurately reflect the fluidity of being human. This narrative can harm in that it prevents individuals from reaching out because they doubt the validity of their experience and/or feel that the system does not accommodate their needs.

It also enables the formation of another misconception; that mental health challenges are permanent. This again is untrue as it dismisses the many variables that shape how we perceive, process, and respond to events in our life. What even is ‘good mental health’, and does this remain constant? Who are current models serving?

And what do you think needs to be done to challenge these misconceptions?

We need to start understanding symptoms for what they really are: powerful messengers from the body trying to get attention. A lot of current discourse is moving away from the diagnostic model, to epigenetics and the radical healing journeys of those who once felt permanently ‘stuck’. We need to hear more about these stories. We need more conversation around managing transient emotions, mental health as a spectrum and the context in which feelings arise.

Related to this is the importance of decolonising mental health care. Awareness of cultural differences alone is not enough. We must actively reassess and dismantle the narrative that upholds neo-colonial influence which fails to think about an individual’s struggle in the context of historical forces, social structures, or cultural dynamics.

Colonisation, settler colonialism and imperialism have left deep, multigenerational wounds on the psyches and identities of indigenous people and diaspora. Rejecting or undermining the credibility of non-traditional remedies and culturally affirming practices only reinforces a shame culture, which creates isolation and breeds internalised oppression. Neither of these are conducive to promoting a culture of wellness, and more importantly, one that is intersectional and inclusive for all.

Another aim of MHAW is to get people talking about their mental health. Can you recommend any resources for those who would like to talk to someone about their mental health?

There are many free resources, including Queen Mary’s very own counselling service which is especially great for support around university stress, including the drop-in wellbeing workshops around the Study Well campaign.

I also recommend The Listening Place, a charity that provides support for those who feel life is no longer worth living. You can self-refer and it is especially great for those looking for 1:1 support, in person or virtually. Side by Side, Mind’s online community is another great resource to connect with others over shared experiences. I would also recommend MindSET, a free interactive resource sharing skills and tools to help young people (16-30yrs) manage feelings of anxiety and distress when feeling overwhelmed.

I think one of the most common misconceptions I’ve come across is the idea that mental health exists in a binary: you are either mentally ill or mentally healthy. This enables the formation of another misconception; that mental health challenges are permanent. This again is untrue as it dismisses the many variables that shape how we perceive, process, and respond to events in our life.

Do you have any mental health advocate role models or anyone you admire for being open about their personal mental health experiences?

There’s an Instagram page @youca_n_doit founded by actor and author, Jamaal Cox. He explores stigma surrounding accessing mental health services, especially in males, where the pressure to appear relevant and tough is insurmountable. He started the movement “Depression to Expression” to encourage others to reclaim their power through honest conversation. I admire his openness, which is not only a testimony of his sheer strength but capacity to ignite transformation within the inner worlds of others.

Based on your own experiences, is there anything you feel the University can do to improve the support and resources available for students suffering with their mental health?

I think an aspect that is often overlooked is the context in which students may find themselves struggling with their mental health. Having services designated for certain themes, like the Report + Support platform launched in 2019, which deals specifically with sexual violence, harassment and hate crimes can remove the taxing aspect of having to recount a story to individuals who have not undergone specialised training. This also supplements existing content, like the Consent Matters course that is available to all students.

Queen Mary might benefit from extending this strategy to other areas of mental health. This could be in the form of creating content based on the Mental Health First Aid training and making it available to all students. By no means is this meant to replace those who are certified MHFAiders, but it certainly would upskill students to listen reflectively, gain a better understanding of various mental health challenges and discover different ways to recognise and provide support to those in crisis. This would align with Queen Mary’s zero tolerance to discrimination and help destigmatise mental health at university and beyond.

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Rawan or engage her in your work, please contact Nicole at n.brownfield@qmul.ac.uk.