Comment writers Abby Spreadborough and Isobel Doyle consider who is responsible for dealing with a mental health crisis across the UK’s higher education institutions
A new academic year presents itself with new opportunities during the fervent excitement of freshers week. Yet, there will be those amongst our community who are struggling. Student mental health has dominated the headlines in recent months. In 2017, according to the ONS, 95 students took their own lives. Therefore it is imperative that we consider – who is dealing with this tragedy?
Across the country a crisis is erupting as major institutions fail to holistically cope with student wellbeing. Currently, the university offers a range of mental health services including dedicated welfare officers within each departments, Nightline, and one to one counselling. However, a university wide mental health framework is non-existent. Instead, instances of poor mental wellbeing are dealt with on a case by case basis. This largely ineffective policy can be seen in a variety of top ranking universities in the UK. Many others such as Loughborough, Surrey and Cambridge are in the process of reviewing outdated frameworks. So, it comes as no surprise that students continue to slip through the net, such was the case for a third year University of Bristol student who committed suicide only a month ago, after being assessed by welfare officers and his local GP. A lack of thorough and consistent care led to a numbness and distress which was ultimately fatal, but avoidable.
In response to this universities are beginning to reform their approach towards student mental health. For example, 94% of the University of Bristol’s students signed up to have mental health alerts sent to their parents this academic year. All students are aware of the leap from college to university, including the feelings of isolation, peer pressure and inadequacy. We go from an environment of constant support and supervision to one of independence both in our studies and personal lives. Surely Bristol’s policy would assist in this transition, providing a vital link home to ease students into their new lives as undergraduates. All universities should be following Bristol’s example, by taking steps in the right direction toward positive action.
Others may argue that this is a violation of privacy and may deter students from seeking out support. This accompanies the wider stigma attached to poor mental health which is clearly still prevalent. For fear of judgement many of these invisible illnesses go undetected – in fact, one in four people will experience a mental health problem each year. This means that someone in your flat, seminar group or sports team could be suffering in silence. Consequently, it is clear that alternative intervention is required in order to provide students with the support that they need. For instance, compulsory talks could be given by trained welfare officers detailing the recognisable signs of common mental health disorders, each term. This way, not only members of staff, but potentially other students, will be able to help those who may be affected. It can be as simple as encouraging activity to regulate mood, downloading a mindfulness app or taking part in extra curriculars.
It is not just students, however, that need support. Applicants and parents require more awareness of the welfare services on offer. Currently, some institutions have guarded their policies and have made them accessible only to staff and students. Greater transparency is required to make clear to parents and applicants what they’re potentially paying for. Some have suggested that a national grading system not too dissimilar to the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) should be created to rate pastoral care.
Regardless of which method of improving welfare is best or most practical, it is undoubtedly clear that change needs to be made – not only institutionally but also in terms of reforming our mindsets. Until this shift has occurred, ensure that if you are having problems you seek out the support available to you, check in regularly with the people around you and push to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.