In conversation with Melanie Onovo, founder of The Truth Of The Matter

Ellie: What inspired you to set up The Truth Of The Matter, and to talk about mental health as part of the movement?

Melanie: So, back in June I went through quite a horrific experience with racial harassment within the university, which caused an immense amount of stress and led to what was a serious mental health breakdown. Before then I’d experienced anxiety and bouts of depression before, but what I had in June was a hyper-manic episode. Since then I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which has been quite a tough experience to go through and deal with. That breakdown was very public, it was on all my social media platforms for everyone to see. I just wanted a safe space to be able to talk about the things that happened to me, but also open up that space to other people. I wanted people to be able to talk about their own lived experiences, whether it be with discrimination or mental health problems, or just anything really. Mainly students watch Truth of The Matter, but it’s for all people who are part of marginalised groups to have a safe space to talk about topics integral to their identity.

Ellie: As a Black student, do you think that there are specific mental health-related challenges or experiences that are unique to Black students at Oxford?

Melanie: I don’t think there are specific mental health-related challenges; I think some are exacerbated by being a Black student. So for instance, by being a Black student you’re automatically going to be part of a small minority within the university. That in itself can open you up to impostor syndrome, quite bad feelings of isolation that can then lead to anxiety and depression, and immense stress just from being a part of that minority group. But also, being a Black student means that it is likely you will suffer some form of racism, whether overt or more implicit microaggressions. Going through that will have an impact on your mental health, and that’s something that’s exclusive to your own identity. In that way I think you are more exposed to mental health challenges, but I don’t think there are specific mental health challenges that only Black students face.

Ellie: Yeah, completely. And following on from that, what do you think Oxford needs to do better when supporting the mental health needs of Black students and students from other marginalised groups? Do you think they could be doing more?

Melanie: I think they could be doing a lot more. Following what happened to me, I realised that there was actually a lack of something you’d expect to be quite simple – there was a lack of Black counsellors in the university. They’ve now worked a lot harder to rectify that; I was initially turned down for counselling, because I’d asked for a culturally sensitive counsellor. That doesn’t mean a Black counsellor, just someone who’s culturally sensitive, and they didn’t feel like they could provide that at the time. That was quite worrying to me, given what we’ve already discussed about Black students being more vulnerable to mental health problems. Not having Black counsellors who can be there for Black students who may go through a hard time at the university is quite bad, but it would be wrong for me not to say that this is changing. They’re doing a lot more now to make sure that there’s representation within the Counselling Service, and I think my interactions with the Disability Advisory Service have been really quite good in terms of responsiveness and their mentoring service. I think the main issue now is representation within those services. There may be instances (for example, with my situation of racial harassment) where students may want a Black counsellor so that they can feel more comfortable talking about their experiences with racism, and so that their mental health needs can be catered to by someone who has had those experiences. So I think the university needs to work harder to have representation within those care-providing services, and that doesn’t just apply to Black students, but also to disabled students, LGBTQ+ students.  – i It’s very important to have some diversity within care-providing services, which I don’t think is currently there.

Ellie: Since setting up The Truth of the Matter, has engaging in activism affected your mental health in any way – positively or negatively?

Melanie: I think both! I’ve made new friends by setting up The Truth of the Matter. The people who work with me to produce infographics for the Instagram, plan for the YouTube videos, we’ve become great friends. That was important to me, especially at the time when I set up The Truth of The Matter when my mental health was quite fragile, it helped to be working with really good people. Alongside that, I’ve been learning how to protect my own mental health, and I’ve learnt to do a lot better – for instance, this week, me and the team just took a week off. We’re all at university, even though I’m on suspension right now I still do a lot of uni work at home trying to catch up. I just have to look after myself; I’m on a medical suspension to recover from the breakdown I had last term. So I’m being very careful with overwhelming myself, but the good thing about The Truth of the Matter is that the work isn’t overwhelming. We do important things, but we all care about each other’s spaces and mental health, and we know when to pause, recover, and come back. 

Certain YouTube videos have opened me up to abuse, which has been bad for my mental health, but I’ve learned to just not look at the comments any more, because yeah, it’s not pleasant. I’m talking about topics which shouldn’t be controversial, but still are. Especially the anti-Semitism video I did – that led to a lot of abuse. It’s a shame, but it shows that I’m doing something right. 

Ellie: I think it really has filled a gap in terms of voices in Oxford that are being heard. It’s just a massive shame that it then opens you up to abuse which harms your mental health, but if you’re making people who have prejudiced views angry, then that’s a sign that the right conversations are happening.

Melanie: Exactly. And I think I saw the same thing with the video on sharking that we did – there were mixed responses. Some people were calling us snowflakes, saying that it’s not wrong, that it’s a normal part of romantic interaction at university. Controversial conversations that shouldn’t be controversial are the ones I want to keep having. Somebody has to fill that space. At the end of the day, the tough conversations have to be had. That’s why it’s called The Truth of the Matter, it’s about having the hard conversations that other people are not currently having, or aren’t comfortable talking about. It’s not about creating a space that is comfortable, it’s about creating a space that is real.

By Ellie Redpath