Not a care in the world: universities fail to provide effective mental health care for students

Kate McLaughlin talks about how universities have failed their students

Kate McLaughlin
17th December 2020

The pandemic has thrown the mental health crisis into a state of emergency.. This semester, thousands of students have moved into halls, and for many of them it is their first time away from home.

One fresher relayed their disappointment with the current situation:

“It felt like a very calculated move on the part of the universities and accommodation providers… to ask us to return to campus and then reveal that all teaching was going to be online.”

Isolating in one room surrounded by strange, new people would be a challenge for anyone. Newcastle University advertises their COVID support online, offering food vouchers (up to £50, only valid in the student union co-op), food delivery and medication delivery for those in isolation. The library offers laptop loans and book pickups. With regards to mental health, the university suggests checking out their range of virtual events which includes thrills and spills like careers webinars and a virtual tour of Grainger Market. They also suggest checking out TalkCampus, which is an app that seems to be Twitter except everyone only posts about how they’re straight up not having a good time. Finally, the most sensible sounding option, the university offers “welfare calls.”

A final year languages student expressed their dismay at the lack of concern for students’ emotional wellbeing from staff making calls.

“I was informed I could have a ‘welfare call’ which wasn’t exactly what I was after but I thought it would be better than nothing. I had initially reached out for mental health support but the uni was more concerned with my covid symptoms. I was asymptomatic. I called for a third time to ask if I would be receiving a welfare call. I was told that the previous phone call was the ‘welfare call’ and I would be receiving no further support.”

 The university website currently lists 12 therapists and 7 mental health advisers. In his recent email updates to students, Vice Chancellor Chris Day appears keen to advertise the Student Wellbeing Service but neglects to consider the efficacy of the service, or even its availability. A second year art student who sought out help from the wellbeing service described an impersonal and convoluted process

“I felt like I was pinging around from one person to another, from me going to my personal tutor, to me going to the advice centre, having to put in a request that led me to someone else… I was sat in front of a vaguely sympathetic woman who spent 30 minutes going through a checklist with me. I just didn’t feel like I could talk to her. I felt very aware of how limited the sessions were and that made me stop early.”   

This mental health crisis did not happen suddenly. Students have been under increased pressure for years.

Relatively new problems include having  a more impersonal university experience due to a high student population, the pressure to succeed in today's hyper-competitive graduate market and extortionate tuition fees. A 2018 survey found that 45% of UK students used alcohol and recreational drugs as a coping mechanism and 34% felt that they needed professional mental health support. The IPPR noted the dramatic increase in students disclosing mental health conditions between 2005/6 to 2015/16 and the devastating record number of student suicides in 2015. On the 8th of October 2020, a Manchester University student was found dead in his halls of residence. Finn Kitson was only 19 years old. Here’s what his father had to say; “If you lockdown young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety.” Finn’s death is so heartbreaking because it was preventable. 

What would be reasonable for students in the UK to expect? The canadian state of Ontario’s educational leaders have been contrastingly pro-active and responsive to the mental health needs of students. Minister of colleges and universities Ross Romano responded to the government's decision to invest 19.25 million CAD into postsecondary students’ mental health, saying; ‘Having mental health supports in place for when students need them most is a key part of helping students succeed, especially during this very difficult COVID period. This additional funding will equip our postsecondary partners with greater resources — creating the best conditions possible for students to achieve their desired goals." One of these resources, the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health, is a hub offering a variety of services including virtual toolkits for staff and students, an informational video series called ‘Conversations over Coffee’, expert-led webinars and online access to a range of mental health research papers and reports. Interestingly, one of those featured was a report about declining student mental health in the UK! The report even addresses the UK government and Higher Education Providers, suggesting methods for ameliorating the situation. Post-pandemic, students across the country are scared, lonely and sick.

Who will they turn to when they can't trust their university or government to support them when they need it most?

Until mental health is properly addressed, it’s more important than ever to keep the conversation going. My contribution comes in the form of a movement calling for action, sharing information based on my experiences, and offering non-judgemental advice. I encourage students who feel that their mental health is suffering to check out the Instagram page @heavy.mental.ncl . I’m prepared to listen to students who need support at this time and it’s as simple as sending a DM; you don’t need a doctor’s note, you don’t need to be on medication, you don’t need to wait until it gets worse.

If you’re not feeling good right now, then reach out.

Finally, remember to slow down and be extra understanding with yourself and with others. Look after yourself and look after the ones you love.

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