Let’s Make This Academic Year The One We Tackle The Mental Health Crisis at Universities

Scott Dawson has just finished his role as Community and Well-being Officer at the University of York’s Students’ Union.

Scott achieved many things in the position, from organising a ‘Don’t Drink & Drown’ city-wide campaign with the Royal Life Saving Society, to making it mandatory for the National Living Wage to be paid to SU staff under the age of 25. Perhaps the most crucial focus for Scott in his role, however, was improving the personal well-being of the students at his university.

One of the major things he did while in office was submit a motion to NUS National Conference calling for the union of students to put mental health at the top of their agenda by campaigning against cuts to services.

Scott’s motion was successful, but he says there is still much more to be done in the coming months and years to help students who are suffering from mental health problems.

Scott: At NUS Conference 2016 I gave a speech on the current mental health crisis at universities across the UK. After spending years in Welfare-oriented roles at the University of York, where we have unfortunately seen several high-profile suicides, I believe that students really are being stretched to breaking point. The motion I presented at the conference was successful; we unanimously agreed that, in the coming years, something must be done to tackle the problem. But actually taking action, seeing results, and making sure mental health remains top of the agenda is a much harder task.

via youtube.com

via youtube.com

Now more than ever, with the axing of maintenance grants and students facing further increases in tuition fees as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is introduced, we must come together at universities to ensure we are heard by the government on this issue.

Last year, 12% of York students – 2,000 people – had an appointment with open door counselling services. But that base statistic, worrying in itself, doesn’t convey the severity of the issue I encountered as Community and Well-being Officer. I regularly spoke to students who felt isolated and shunned by the university or their friends, who were under so much academic pressure that they believed they were somehow failures for struggling.

via independent.co.uk

via independent.co.uk

I spent hour-long meetings with students who were terrified about a friend’s state of mind, usually because their friend was not only having a hard time, but was unable to find adequate support facilities. And this wasn’t uncommon, it was daily. If I were to list the most frequently asked questions I had to answer in my SU role, a vast amount were from students needing mental health support. I repeatedly arrived in the office to find long emails or Facebook messages from students panicking that they had nowhere to go, and who, as a result, wanted to run away from university for good.

Since fees trebled, there has been a surge in the number of students seeking help for mental health issues. 

This isn’t a new issue, but it has certainly become increasingly critical since £9,000 tuition fees were introduced in 2012 – and not just in York, but nationwide. Since fees were trebled, there has been a surge in the number of students seeking help for mental health issues. In the academic year 2014-15, 43,000 students at Russell Group universities attended counselling, a 28% increase compared with three years earlier. As far as I am concerned, this increase is not a coincidence.

I’ve been an academic representative, alongside my welfare roles, since 2012; I worked with academics who reported that significantly more of their students who paid the higher fees were experiencing mental health issues. This is before we factor in the implications of the axing of maintenance grants and steady rise in fees as part of TEF, which will be felt by students in the near future, including those who have just received results and are excited to begin higher education.

via theguardian.com

via theguardian.com

All university students will be affected by academic pressure and, in years to come, by fee increases – but it is important to recognise those who need our support the most.

Many disabled students require help to get around campus due to mobility or vision issues, whilst some experience acute fatigue that prevents them from taking part in day-to-day student life. This leaves them particularly exposed to mental health problems and vulnerable in the face of cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowances and increased financial pressure due to TEF.

Meanwhile, almost half of LGBTQ students suffer from mental health issues and are more likely to experience eating disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts than others. It is essential that they have the support they need in terms of mental health services, especially when they may have family who do not accept them for who they are.

Those who struggle the most to make it to university end up suffering the most just to stay there.

With maintenance grants cut in favour of more loans, students from low-income families are also particularly at risk for experiencing mental health issues due to the increased pressure they are under. They will be forced to rely more on part-time work and hardship funds, alongside working to attain the grades they need. Those who struggle the most to make it to university end up suffering the most just to stay there because of their background.

No matter what each of our backgrounds is, we must unite as a student community to shout about mental health issues in order to see positive change.

What can students do to help? 

The most obvious solution is to help expand campus counselling facilities by making universities increase their budgets for mental health. This isn’t easy though, and there are things we can do right now so that we can begin to see progress.

Students need to use their SU to flag up weak points in current services so that financial support from their university doesn’t go to waste. We also need to get Students’ Unions and universities to jointly pressure local government meetings where mental health is discussed; by influencing them we can ensure funding is moved towards investing into adequate support services. Campaigning can sound scary, but it’s important to remember that we can only make sure the government focuses on the mental health of students if we show them how important it is to us.

Not all campaigning needs to be attending demonstrations in London such as the NUS #CutTheCosts campaign, but that is certainly one way to do it. If you don’t want to, or can’t, do that – going to events around World Mental Health Day and those run by national charities are form of protest too. Take a photo of the event, share the message on social media and encourage friends to do so as well.

It is crucial to come together as students to confront an issue that cuts across every spectrum and will, in some way, touch everyone.

Some may struggle from time to time, while for others, making it through and performing simple daily functions is a massive achievement to celebrate. The costs of living as a student in the current HE environment are damaging and, at present, it seems we are too afraid to tackle this constantly growing problem. Because of that, the most important thing we can do individually is to never allow others – whether it’s university staff, those in government, or the people we socialise with – to trivialise mental health issues.

We must say no to mental health provisions being slashed. No to those in power pretending that mental health issues aren’t the serious problem we know that they are. And we must say no to students being told to simply get on with it.

September marks another academic year, in which many will continue to suffer without the support that they need. Let’s make this the year that we speak up for them, and begin to tackle the increasing stress – financial or otherwise – that students are under.