Thursday 21 May 2015

How to Run a Mental Health Conference - Student Minds Cambridge

- An Interview with Student Minds Cambridge

Student Minds Cambridge recently ran their second annual conference on mental health. It was another highly successful event, with five speakers attending and a full audience. We asked the team behind the conference why they decided to set up a mental health conference on campus and how they managed to make it so successful.

What inspired you to set up a mental health conference? What was the background to the initial planning?

Izzy Tilley, Vice-President: 

We really wanted to run a mental health conference this year to follow on from the hugely successful conference run by last year’s Student Minds Cambridge committee, and hopefully to establish this event as an annual thing! Their conference ‘We’re all mad here’ was the first mental health conference ever to be run in Cambridge, and we wanted to make sure that events like these become a regular part of the Cambridge calendar. The dialogue on mental health is just starting to properly open up, and our whole committee was keen to help encourage even more people to come along and find out more about mental health from our diverse panel of speakers. 

Laura-May Nardella, President: 

Our initial planning was a very quick process; as soon as this year’s committee formed, we set a date (giving ourselves only four weeks to plan!) and decided that we were going to run the conference. We knew it was something that people were interested in attending from the success of the first conference so we got stuck in straight away.

How did you successfully get a number of high-profile speakers to the event? 

Izzy Tilley, Vice-President: 

We were lucky to have some great contacts given to us by the previous committee, but we also sent out emails to as many mental health charities and organisations as we could think of, as well as inviting individuals who have spoken out about mental health. Lots of people were interested, and we received more confirmations than we were expecting! If I had to give advice to someone trying to secure high-profile speakers for an event, I would say contact as many people as you can think of, and don’t be afraid to ask even if it is a long-shot! 

What was difficult about organising the conference(s)? What surprised you? 

Laura-May Nardella, President:

I think the most difficult thing was not knowing how many people would turn up. It’s quite difficult to gage from a Facebook event exactly how many people will actually come to an event that they’ve clicked ‘going’ to but we worked on the basis that at least half probably would and went with that number. It turns out our expectations were exceeded in the end so we didn’t need to worry but, as is always the case when you want something to be a success, you tend to panic that no one is going to come. In hindsight, we could have made life a bit easier by ticketing the event. Once people have made that kind of commitment, they’re more likely to come. 

I was really surprised by how smoothly the actual conference went though! Getting five speakers from all around the country to the conference on time, setting up projectors and sound systems, remembering speeches- I was so sure something was going to go horribly wrong at the last minute. I think with the amount of effort our committee put into planning and the great communication we had between us and our speakers, our worries were definitely misplaced. 

Izzy Tilley, Vice President: 

Personally, I was surprised by how smoothly our organisation of the conference went – there were a few minor hiccoughs regarding the refreshments we wanted to provide afterwards, but apart from that we did not have any real difficulties. We ran on a tight schedule, having only a couple of weeks in which to organise the conference, which was stressful at times, but other than that we didn’t have any problems. It was also a nice surprise to see how many people we contacted were keen to come and talk at the conference – I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the enthusiasm we received was really heartening. 

Lindsay Malone, Head of Events:

Publicity - working out how to get the word out and enthuse people about coming along. Surprising that social media can be so effective compared to old-fashioned posters, although the two work best together.

What aspects of the conference, or the way you advertised it, made it successful? 

Laura-May Nardella, President: 

We mainly advertised online through our twitter, our Facebook page and the actual Facebook event in the days leading up to the conference. Social media is such a great tool for these kinds of events. We did ask our reps to advertise by word of mouth in their colleges for us as well though. Our university is a bit of a weird bubble where you can’t advertise things too far in advance, otherwise, people just don’t turn up. We knew this was the case though so we made sure to heavily advertise during the week of the conference. 

I think that our Facebook event made it clear that there was going to be a great panel line up and giving people the chance to see who was coming to talk and what they were coming to talk about definitely spiked peoples’ interest. 

Student Minds Cambridge's poster advertising the conference

What do you think was the impact of the conference? 

Lindsay Malone, Head of Events:

There was lots more discussion about mental health generally by peers both in the lead up to the conference and afterwards.
People were surprised by some of the speakers taking more unusual angles around mental health and liked this as they could understand a more diverse range of issues.
Even for people who didn't go, we got people talking about mental health a lot more and that spread across all the colleges.
As a result, Student Minds Cambridge became a lot more well known because of the conference through all the publicity we received. It allowed us to make connections with important advocates for talking about mental health which should hopefully help with future events.

Do you have any testimonials from people who attended the conference? 

“The SMC conference was not only perfectly timed in term for a discussion regarding mental health but brought together varied and interesting champions of the mental health cause, shedding light on not only student health but wide and all-encompassing areas of this complex topic. It was great to have such a positive discussion about a topic that is so close to all our hearts in Cambridge, led by what is clearly a strong team, working towards a more aware Cambridge. This conference was just one element in the jigsaw of their progressive work so far this term.'”
- Undergraduate student, conference attendee

“I found the variety of speakers really helpful and it meant that it appealed to a wide audience - you had those speaking from a research-focused or economic point of view and then others speaking from a more personal background, such as the Beat woman who had suffered from an ED in the past. It meant that we all took something different from it that was either more personal to us or related to our course of study/ interest.”
- Michaela Hine, a first-year student studying Russian and Spanish

“I really liked the range of different speakers, not just labelling mental disorders under a blanket, but to show the intricacies of them and people's personal experiences with them and I suppose I took away a lot of questions about the nature of always being driven to work all the time- is it making us better, smarter and more efficient or is it actually lowering quality of life?” 
- Matt Worssam, Natural Sciences student

“I found the part about how education generally teaches us to be competitive really interesting - it only then struck me how isolating and unnecessary that was, and how we actually could still do well without treating it as a competition or "guarding our secrets", as it were, even if that's what lecturers etc. make us feel” 
- Catherine Watts, a first-year student studying French and German

Do you have any plans for future conferences?

Laura-May Nardella, President:

I think that we will definitely have some more speaker events in October when the new academic year starts but I hope that the conference will become an annual event that the following SMC committees take on. It is a lot of work to fit in around studying and our terms are incredibly short so a conference is a huge commitment to undertake. Having said that, it’s massively rewarding and we know these kinds of events put mental health back on the agenda every time they happen. 

What would your advice be to anybody looking to organise a mental health conference?

Laura-May Nardella, President: 

My biggest piece of advice would quite simply be: set a date and stick to it. Once you’ve got that date down on paper, you have to start organising things and you are under pressure to get things done within a time limit. Start emailing speakers and as soon as you’ve got your first speaker, find a venue. 

My other piece of advice would be to get creative with your theme or your speakers. Get a diverse panel and cover lots of different issues. If all your speakers are talking about one aspect of mental health, you might not attract as many people to your conference. The more variety you have, the more people you will be able to reach out to!

If you've run a mental health event on campus that's been particularly successful, get in touch with us at We're always excited to share best practice from student groups across the UK to make our collective efforts at promoting student mental health on campus more effective.

1 comment:

  1. When I was in university I suffered from mental health issues and had a major relapse in my final year. I wish I knew about organisations such at this at that time