Interview by Nahum Gale
Responses by Marta Mlot, Eliza Mortimer-Royle
You may have turned the last page expecting an interview with a USASA Club, but for the Mental Health Edition, we decided to do something a little bit differently here at Verse. Batyr is a non-for-profit organisation created by young people for young people. Verse was lucky to catch up with Marta Mlot, the program coordinator for Batyr at UniSA, and Eliza Mortimer-Royle, the President of Batyr’s team of executives to learn just what Batyr does and how they continuously lend a helping hand to our student body.
What is Batyr? What is your general mission and purpose?
M: It was founded in 2011 by a guy called Seb and, basically, Seb experienced mental ill health himself while he was at uni. He kind of reflected on that and pinpointed it as dating back to when he was in high school and really saw it as this kind of “elephant in the room”. He wondered if he would have been a lot better if someone had an honest and vulnerable conversation about it with him. So, he founded Batyr. [There was a] tie in with an elephant, because, in the 60s, there was this elephant in Kazakhstan [named Batyr] who was taught to speak 20 phrases in Russian. So, the idea was if you can teach an elephant to speak, surely, we can publicly talk about mental health. From there it grew to a pretty national organisation that really centres around empowering young people with mental health and supporting them through getting into schools and unis. Basically, it has been destigmatising mental health and talking about how it’s ok not to be ok and doing that on a real peer to peer level.
“Batyr is a bridge that connects people to mental health services that might be available to you in your area…”
Not everyone is going to vibe with a doctor or a psych or some really clinical person coming in and talking to them and being like, you should talk about your mental health. But when those conversations happen peer to peer, not only are you empowering a whole generation of young people, but you are making that conversation way more accessible and normal as it should be.
E: Rather than providing mental health services, Batyr is a bridge that connects people to mental health services that might be available to you in your area, or one that might work for you. So, it gives you those options, but it just more so is about putting young people’s voices at the forefront and really focusing on what it means to be a young person in Australia who might experience a mental health issue or might go through a rough patch. It is actually about centring on those voices which I think is really valuable and really exciting as a young person with lived experience.
Since you have been working with Batyr, how big of a problem have you found mental ill health to be for students. Basically… how big is the elephant in the room?
M: Statistically, and mind you this is pre-COVID, studies show that on average, in Australia, 83% of uni students reported feeling some kind of mental ill health during time studying. And there has been research since that shows that actually [that percentage] went up a fair bit during COVID as well with the chronic nature of that and how long lasting that stress and that experience of mental ill health was. So, that’s kind of from a statistical perspective. But, it’s an interesting question as well because it’s kind of like, well, how long is a piece of string? How do people identify when they are feeling mental ill health if maybe they don’t have the language for that? Just because someone has a diagnosis or a chronic experience with mental ill health, they might actually be in a really positive space and they might not really identify in being on that negative end of the spectrum. I think it’s a really tough one to answer.
“In Australia, 83% of uni students reported feeling some kind of mental ill health during time studying…”
How can people access Batyr and experience what you guys do?
M: The exec is a volunteer opportunity and we are always looking to expand how we engage with volunteers and how we take volunteers on. I would say one of the biggest ways to get involved with Batyr at UniSA is keeping an eye out for workshops that we run. We will have quite a few student mental health leadership workshops coming up over the next few terms, pretty much right through to the end of Study Period 5. And there are always Being Heard workshops as well which is something Batyr runs on a national level. And those are free workshops that are open to anyone, 18 to 30 years old, and it’s a one-and-a-half-day workshop that is all about really learning how to tell your story of mental ill health safely and being an advocate in your community.
But it doesn’t have to be about that either, like some people just want to come to the workshop to make sense of their journey and their story and they might want to take it away and share that with their families and friends or it might just be for them. They might even choose to go on and continue what we call speaker development at Batyr, where we train them up a little bit extra, and they come on as a speaker who might go to schools and unis and share their story of their lived experience which is what everything that we do kind of centres around. So, I think on top of staying connected in that community sense, like through the execs and coming to events, the most practical way to be involved in something like this is having those conversations with your peers. I don’t think you need to be a part of something like formally volunteering with Batyr to do the work.
Personally, how did you both find Batyr and decide you wanted to commit to the organisation and their philosophies?
E: I feel so lucky to have found Batyr when I did. Basically, coming out of high school, I went to uni straight away, studying psychology. During high school, I had some really intense mental ill health experiences. I was lucky enough to have a really supportive family and I got a lot of professional support for that, and I really came through. By the end of high school, I was enjoying myself. I was at a good high; a good level. But that is also exactly what shaped me to want to pursue psychology; trying to put back into the world what I felt helped me as a young person.
“It is such a universal experience to go through struggles and to have tough times…”
Joining UniSA psychology, Batyr did a program for that first year, entry level psych class and what Batyr did at this program was talk about mental health as this normal thing. The overall take away of the programs was, how do you have conversations about mental health and what can you do for your own mental health. It resonated with me as a young person who had lived experience. At the program they had lived experience speakers, who are people that come and share their own experience of living through mental ill health and mental health issues as a young person. Hearing those stories and hearing there was a way to learn how to share my story… I’m not kidding, during that program, while someone was sharing their story, it was so rude, but I got out my laptop and signed up for the next Being Heard workshop, because I thought this was something I could do as someone with lived experience. Figuring out how I could use that experience to give back without even needing the qualification of a degree was something I was really looking for in that first year of joining uni and Batyr kind of provided that avenue pretty perfectly and at the pretty perfect time for it as well. So, I kind of jumped on it straight away; went to my first workshop that was the one and a half day one back in March 2019. Then I went through speaker development and became a speaker at the end of 2019. Through being a speaker, I got to know the staff who worked at Batyr in South Australia which, at the time, was Alex in Marta’s role. He was running the exec and he was like, ‘you should get on it’ and I was like, ‘sure.’ And now, here I am.
[When] you get up there and you are sharing your personal story, first of all, with the stigma around mental health, you are like, ‘who wants to hear this, this is really personal; is this even going to resonate with people.’ But the more you do it, the more you feel that people in that audience, whoever they might be, whether they resonate with the specifics of your story or not, they have felt your experience in some way or another, in some chapter of their lives. It is such a universal experience to go through struggles and to have tough times and to really be able to feel that and share that and have people in a room really resonate with your experiences is just something that you can’t put words to. It’s pretty magical.
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