We had a chat with UCL alumni Trista, who was a Project Leader for the SLP Arts for Mental Health while she studied a BA in Education Studies.

Tell us a little bit about your project.

The aim of the project is to use the medium of art to help improve students’ mental health. What we do is that we collaborate with local charities and community centres to deliver weekly sessions, including art and psychology sessions, to help young people get to know more about mental health, psychology, and also how the medium of arts can have the power to improve and strengthen their mental well-being.

We had a three-month programme, where we delivered one session every week to young people, so there were ten sessions in total.

How we structured our programme was that we did two art sessions and then one psychology session. This way the psychology session was in between the art ones. So the first two art sessions were for young people to explore different art mediums like painting or crafting, and we would have a theme for them to self-reflect, and then do some self-expression by painting and doing their own craft. So it's more like getting into know the art medium and then using the art to express themselves and reflect on their own emotions and mental well-being. Then we would couple that with a psychology session, in which we would have a volunteer who is more specialized in psychotherapy, and we would do some reflection of the artwork that the young people did and reflect more in depth about what's undergoing in their own emotions and how they feel about their art, their recent mental health status, and what they tried to express with their painting artworks.

At the end of the project, we did a curation around young people's artworks. We did an in person one, in which we asked the young people to use the physical space available to create a space to display their artworks. We also have an online version, which is on the Arts for Mental Health website.

Tell us about your Project Leader role.

My role as a project leader involved communication and project planning. From the very beginning, so planning and submitting a proposal, to finding the charities, talking to them, and arranging the collaborations. Then starting the recruitment of volunteers, because a lot of volunteers expressed interest in this project, we had a recruitment process where we interviewed the candidates, just to make sure that they are capable of leading the sessions with art mediums, and especially when it comes to the mental health part, we have to make sure the volunteers know the boundaries with the children and young people and they have to expertise to not overstep. Once the project is running, the project leader tasks involve monitoring how everything goes, and also the dissemination of what we do.

Why did you want to become a Project Leader?

First of all, it’s a very interesting opportunity what we as Arts for Mental health can do to connect with the local charities and do something meaningful, also with great funding and support from the Student’s Union Volunteering Service, without which we wouldn’t be able to do everything we do.

I personally quite love volunteering and spending time with young people and it's always a great way to contribute to society, and it’s especially nice to have some of our expertise being used in practical and fun ways. It's quite fun to run our project, and the volunteers are very nice, very creative and innovative individuals, so our chatting and collaboration were really great.

Also, I think I was trying to develop leadership skills and project planning skills, and working as a project leader is a great opportunity to help me build up and add to those skills, like administrative skill, time management, team work and management, etc. There is a lot that I can develop throughout the way.

What difference do you feel you’ve made by leading your project?

Firstly, related to mental health stigmas, because most of the time mental health is something that people would attach negative attitudes to, I feel we helped the community, especially the young people, learn that mental health and mental health issues are not bad or negative, but they can be a normal emotional response, and we should pay more attention to them, understand more our stress, our loneliness, in a way that we are comfortable, but not seeing them as an enemy or moving away from them. So that was our effort to eliminate the stigmas attached to mental health issues.

Secondly, I think that we have brought something innovative, using art mediums, to the mental health area, which is why we try to use a very relaxing and joyful way for young people to experience something that may sound serious or boring.

So even if they wouldn’t really feel like a mental health related talk or lecture is that interesting, when trying to make the connections between the art and mental health we are trying to help young people find a better way to approach topics and issues.

Then, for the community as a whole, I feel like it also helps to equip the community centre with some techniques and skills to build up on what we did. Throughout those three months that we worked really closely with the charity, I feel that they might have developed some skills and expertise towards how they can approach the topic, how to work with volunteers, and hopefully they will be able to build up on these ideas and develop more community based activities that can promote similar attitudes, like valuing mental health, connecting with art, and realizing the great power of art in promoting young people's mental health.

For the volunteers, I think they really enjoyed the experience, they made really good friends, and they have also built up on their expertise. Some of them are more specialized in the psychology and mental health area, some are more specialized in the educational setting, like teaching, and others in the art mediums; so they have got those complementary elements that they can learn from each other and help each other to grow and to develop their skills further.

What impact has volunteering, and leading a project had on you?

Helping me to develop many skills, as I mentioned before, leadership skills, team management, team working, and of course more generally, communication skills, especially arranging the collaboration with the charities, doing a recruitment process talking to the volunteers, and also monitoring how everything is going throughout the program, so it has given me a chance to develop my communication skills with different parties.

Also, in terms of knowledge, I gained more knowledge about how community centres or charities work, what it feels like working in this kind of environment and how volunteering works as a whole. So getting more insight into how everything works, because usually I just participated as a volunteer, so I didn’t normally know all of this information.

I feel really joyful about what we have done, especially when the young people enjoy the moment, and I was so amazed by what they have created, they are just legendary. I mean, their artworks are really amazing, I can't believe they can create all those amazing works… I can't do that, but they just did it. So it just really lovely to see that's happening and having that impact.

How has your network developed whilst being a Project Leader?

It has definitely developed my network, we work collaboratively within the project leaders’ team, everyone there had their own responsibilities and roles. Working with the volunteers, I’ve met many brilliant volunteers working in different areas, but with views that I am interested in. I often bump into my volunteers at the campus, so we usually go for a coffee to catch up, and it's really great hearing about everyone’s projects. For example, if they have ongoing projects apart from Arts for Mental Health, but also quite related to what we do.

In terms of the charity, we keep in touch quite a lot, and it's lovely to hear about how they are continuing to promote different creative and innovative projects and thinking about continuing our collaboration.

Also, talking with different project leaders as I attended the project leaders' social events, I have heard about many different interesting projects going on and I learned a lot about how every project leader’s style is different. It's all very interesting to learn about.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered? How did you overcome this challenge?

One of the biggest challenges was forming the collaboration with the charity. We did have many charities express interest, some of them are really proactive, but with some of them there might be some lagging in terms of their responses, so if the communication regarding arranging the partnership extends for a long time, then we might not have that capacity to form that collaboration due to the current programmes going on and also our study work load, especially in term 3.

So we tried to give ourself enough time, for example, if all the partnership forms are filled in, but it’s already very late in the term, we would postpone it to the next term so that we have enough time to recruit volunteers and train them, do the promotional materials, etc. So it's more about giving us enough time instead of rushing it or pushing it, or putting ourselves on the edges, which could cause everyone stress.

Tell us something memorable that’s happened to you whilst being a Project Leader?

It's hard to pick the most memorable because everything going on is quite fun, especially when we are in person, delivering the workshops and sessions.

I think I was quite impressed by the relationship formed between the volunteers and the young people. I was so stressed out about not providing good sessions, but it turns out that the volunteers did a really good job, and the young people really enjoyed it. So it was a relief to know that I've got a good team. That is something that I learned as well that I don't need to rely just on myself all the time, I can count on my team.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone thinking about being a Project Leader?

Just do it, don't think too much about it. Every time I think about whether or not to do something, it becomes more about the panic of doing something I've never done, but only when you do it you know what's going to happen. Also the Student Union has a lot of support available for project leaders, so you don't need to know actually anything to get you started with this opportunity. Just do it and step by step you will have the support and guidance on how to make it work.

Also, you learn so much from actually doing something instead of only preparing or thinking about it, so I guess just do it and don't overthink it.

Want to start your own Student-led Volunteering Project? Find out more and share your ideas with us here!