As the President of my Students' Union, and a University Governor, I know more than most the huge financial pressures on Universities right now. With the budget cuts of the Coalition's HE funding policies beginning to really bite, University managers are facing impossible choices about what services they can continue to fund (or at least fund to the same level).
It today emerges that a number of Universities have decided that one place to cut their cloth is in their provision of Mental Health Support for students. This despite the fact that there is also a large reported increase in students seeking this support. This is something which I believe is not only a danger to those students who need this help, but to every member of our campus communities. With vastly growing pressure on students, this is certainly not the time to de-fund this support but to invest in it.
It does not surprise me in the slightest that the numbers of those seeking counseling and support has increased. If you'll indulge me in a little speculation it seems to be no coincidence that this comes at a time when the financial pressure on students has increased (see: NUS Pound in your Pocket survey), the availability of graduate level jobs has decreased and the general lack of security in student life caused by current HE policy is having a negative affect on most students.
It would follow that far from being a time to make savings in student mental health support it is more vital than ever to invest in it. From a hierarchy of needs point of view, if we cannot ensure students are having their basic hygiene needs met then how can they be expected to succeed or excel academically. The Pound in your Pocket research shows that students find it harder to concentrate on their work when family, finance and personal problems are unresolved. Simply, if students aren't happy and secure then they are far more likely to underperform academically. This underperformance will have a negative affect not only on them (which should be enough for HEIs to take this seriously) but on the academic record of the University itself.
To my mind, and as shown in these articles, the problem runs deeper than just preserving or increasing campus support provisions. There is little point having these services if students do not feel safe to access them and for this we are in desperate need of a culture change in our institutions. The following articles show some of the reasons why.
I spent my entire first year in denial about my own mental health problems and went through some of the worst and darkest times of my life. Despite having been diagnosed with clinical depression and medicated twice in my life already (at 13-14 and then again 18), it took me until the summer to finally seek medical help. Partly I did not want to admit that this condition had hit me again and, at the time, I was very involved in the Pentecostal/Evangelical church which (very dangerously) taught me that mental health problems could be handled through prayer alone.
Thankfully I did finally seek support and was prescribed Prozac which I am still on to this day and I have recently been given Beta Blockers for when my anxiety attacks get particularly bad. I always say that Depression and Anxiety stops you seeing the world as it really is and therefore inhibits your ability to make reasoned decisions. The medication helps clear the fog and see the world as it is and so begin to build your life back up the way that makes you safe, secure and happy.
Throughout this time, however, I never sort support from the University. While I do not doubt I would have received excellent help, it took me about two years to start openly discussing my condition beyond my parents and very close friends. I was hugely afraid of the stigma. Whenever I heard people making ignorant assertions like, "You just need to snap out of it" and, "People are too easily diagnosed with depression these days, they just need to toughen up and deal with life" it would induce a knotted, sick feeling in my stomach. I would begin to question myself as I had done throughout first year. When an illness does not show obvious physical symptoms, it is easy to doubt your own experience.
These attitudes need to change. I have no doubt that the vast majority of these people would not dream of making similar statements to those with physical ailments. They would not tell a wheelchair user to snap out of it and use their legs. But, unless you are a qualified doctor who I have allowed to examine me then you have no ability or right to pronounce your own diagnosis. Yes, it is all in my head - that's the problem. I have an imbalance of chemicals in my brain which affects my mood, behaviour and even my physical condition.
My condition did affect my studies. I remember vividly trying to write an essay due in two days later during second year. I was having a fairly bad attack of my anxiety and I could not concentrate on reading the journal articles and books I needed for my essay. I spent over half an hour trying to read and take in a single sentence before I realised I would not be able to meet the deadline. Thankfully, I had very understanding tutors who allowed me extensions. I had a couple of exams pushed back and even my dissertation when I needed it. Unless it was one of the more serious pieces of work they usually took me at my word and did not require a doctor's note. I do not think I could have achieved the degree classification I did without this.
It is only now, however, I realise how much support I could have accessed. It was only reading about Beth from UEA above that made me realise I was eligible for Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA) - a year after I graduated. If I could have had, as she did, a mentor who regularly checked in on me it would have made an enormous difference to my experience of student life. This shows, I believe, that having support available is not enough - students need to know it is available. This "if we build it, they will come" approach is not sufficient when students are already afraid to seek help. Expecting a student whose decision making ability is not fully working to carefully consider the options available to them and make a sensible, reasoned choice about their medical support is clearly not going to work.
But from reading these articles and the comments a number of people have sent on the Huff Post Students twitter feed makes me feel like one of the lucky ones. My best friends at University and my department supported me. Look at the comments from Imogen below.
With all this evidence how can any institution possibly justify making savings in this area as a responsible decision? University management and budget setters need to face up to the consequences of doing this and how far-reaching they can potentially be.
It worries me that those making the decisions to cut these vital services are either unable to make the connection between welfare and academic success (which reeks of incompetence) or are aware of its importance and are simply choosing to ignore it (which is irresponsible at best and dangerously ableist at worst). If a student in a wheelchair was unable to access their lecture theatre due to a broken lift or lack of ramps I would hope there would be uproar on campus. However, hundreds if not thousands of students are unable to get the support they need to get an education. When this is due to mental health conditions that can be treated and managed there really is no excuse. This has become an issue of equality of opportunity.
But it goes beyond even the effect on those students. A University is a community. The actions and decisions of each individual manager, staff member and student will affect the whole. We should be as outraged by cuts that disadvantage student with mental health conditions as we would be about cuts which deny equal opportunity for students from poorer backgrounds, student parents, physically disabled students, black students or any disadvantaged group.
When one in four people are likely to suffer in any given year, one never knows when mental illness will hit. To coin a phrase: it could be you.
However, there is a positive side to this story. While many Universities may be giving up on students like us, the student movement is not. I was immensely proud to watch at the Students' Unions 2013 conference last week as the President of the National Union of Students, Toni Pearce, signed the organisation up to the Time to Change pledge. I hope to see every University and College Students' Union do the same. If our institutions will not help us then it's time to fight back. Every student needs to tell their institution to (at minimum) protect and ideally extend their Mental Health Support provision. We need to show the correlation between positive mental health and strong academic performance. We need to prove this is an issue of equality.
Above all, however, we need to create safe campuses. Campuses where students like Beth, Imogen and me are not afraid. Not afraid to speak out. Not afraid to seek the help we need. Not afraid to do everything we can to achieve our potential and get the education we came to get.