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Coping With the Mental Health Crisis on Our Campuses

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Undergraduates across the country are now preparing for one of the most intense moments of their young lives: finals. I remember scenes of chaos from my own finals exams just over a decade ago: one friend staggering around the campus with three years of notes in a black bin-liner, another who took too many energy tablets in an attempt to boost his brain-power and ended up passing out in an exam.

I also remember how unhappy I was at that period of my life. I started to get depression and social anxiety in my first year at university, it got steadily worse throughout the three years there, until finally I had a breakdown after finals. I left university with a first class degree, but no clue of how to control my emotions, and little idea of how to find a fulfilling job, or a fulfilling life.

That was partly my fault for not knowing how to take care of myself. But it was also the fault of my university that I had such a bad experience of higher education. The mental health support for students was inadequate, back in 2000. Even today, after a decade when universities have supposedly made big strides in student support, only 54% of higher education institutions say they have any mental health policy. That's a shameful statistic.

Student demand for such services is soaring. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of students requesting mental health support has risen 450% over the last decade (though that's partly because of rising student numbers and improved diversity). According to new figures from Northern Ireland, one in four students suffer from a mental illness at some point during their time at university, which is in line with the national prevalence of mental illness.

Yet, according to another survey, just 4% of students will go to see university counselors. Meanwhile, the national drop-out rate among students is 20%, and rising - again, this is unlikely to be entirely because of mental health problems, but experts suggest it is one factor.

The UK is not alone in facing a mental health problem among university students. In the US, college mental health services also say they are 'overwhelmed', with 90% of student support services reporting a rise in demand. This, of course, is not entirely a bad thing - it means American students feel increasingly comfortable asking for help at this tricky phase of their life.

University is stressful. For many young people, it's their first time away from home, they are suddenly among people of very different backgrounds and classes, they are in environments of binge-drinking and drug-taking, they may experience a lack of social support, they may have difficulty managing their finances (particularly now the cost of tuition has risen so much), they are often under heavy academic pressure. And they about to plunge into an economy where graduate pay is lower than a decade ago in real terms, property is often unaffordable, and 46 graduates are chasing every job vacancy. On top of that you have your elders constantly telling you these are the best days of your life. Welcome to adulthood.

So what can we do about this, as students, parents, universities, healthcare providers and citizens? For a start, we can insist that the provision of mental health services is a statutory requirement for universities. We can make sure every student is told often what support services are available, and encouraged to use them. We can make sure tutors are offered training in how to spot danger signs, how to deal with students who ask for help, and how to help students feel OK about seeking support.

We can ask students about their experiences at universities, and name and shame those universities lacking in basic care. Students are now paying more - they should demand a better service.

Universities, of course, are doing their best. They're overwhelmed by the demand for services from a more psychologically-literate student body, who now more aware of things like depression and anxiety, and thankfully more likely to ask for help. Universities themselves can get help in the provision of such services, by joining up better with local GPs and with voluntary mental health organisations. Students are also learning to self-organise and help themselves, through organisations like Mental Wealth in the UK, or STAMP in the US.

But, deeper than this, I suspect the 'crisis' in student mental health may be a crisis in meaning. It's a crisis about what it means to get a university education. Does a university have a duty of pastoral care to its students? Should it follow the liberal education mission of trying to raise free, autonomous, flourishing citizens, or simply prepare students for their finals?

I want to explore these questions on this blog over the next year, and I would like to hear from you, about your experiences of university, about the well-being services or lack of services you've encountered, and how you think the university experience can be improved. If you're preparing for finals - good luck! And don't worry: these probably aren't the best days of your life.

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