Students have a diverse range of needs, so the services universities offer need to be agile in order to cope with changing student demands. As Director of Student Welfare and Support Services at the University of Oxford, Rotimi Akinsete uses his expertise as a mental health professional to make sure that all students can access the support that’s right for them.
GoodCourse Community Engagement lead Kira Matthews sits down with Rotimi to ask about how he manages the range of services under his remit, and what brought him to his current role.
I’m currently head of student services at Oxford, and have worked at a number of Higher Education institutions before, but my career started in psychiatry.
Previous to my current role, for example, I managed a Tier 2 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services centre in Leyton. Because NHS resources are so stretched, this job was very challenging, but it also was one of the most rewarding and fulfilling roles I have had the privilege to work in.
In lots of ways, this work prepared me to go back into the Higher Education sector, and especially my current job. I oversee the university’s counselling services, as well as the sexual violence service and the disability advisory service, so getting experience managing a centre with a diverse range of offerings was hugely helpful.
I’m very passionate about delivering projects that help people to understand the importance of mental health. Over the last few decades, people have became increasingly open to the idea of taking action to better their mental health, whether that means visiting their GP or going to regular counselling sessions.
Most students — maybe 80% to 85% — will never need to access the support we offer. But for those that need it, it has to be really top quality. We work really hard to make sure that the help at hand is appropriate and effective.
The last few years have had a huge impact on both the mental and physical health of students. The number of Black men in particular who sought my help after the murder of George Floyd, for example, was the highest that I have seen at any time in my career. Sometimes it’s world events that prompt people to seek help.
Some of these men came to me directly, but others were referred to me by family or friends. Lots of universities are now thinking about how to support Black students and help them feel able to come forward to get help themselves.
Just go for it! Particularly if you know that you would give representation to a group that really needs it. I’m particularly concerned about the lack of Black men in psychiatry and counselling services, because a lot of young Black men still see mental health support as a White or eurocentric thing. You can make a difference just being a person of colour in these professions.
Also, be sure to invest in yourself and your own education. It’s really worth the money to study and achieve the qualifications you need to do the work you want to do.
There are so few Black leaders in this sector. I can only think of one Black university Vice-Chancellor, and just a few Black heads of colleges across Oxford and Cambridge. I have so much admiration for these figures, both for the hard work it takes to reach these important positions, and for how hard it is to work in an environment where you are the only Black person, or just one of a few.
I also have a huge deal of admiration for ethnic minority students, who have battled so hard to beat the odds and do well at university, and face additional barriers every day.
I would recommend Malcom X’s autobiography to anyone. This book really spoke to me about what it’s like to be Black in a White system – as well as just being a fantastic story in itself.