There’s a crisis of mental health in our universities and it’s getting worse. Our response must go beyond addressing the institutions that are making us ill and point the finger at the neoliberal transformation of universities.
1. It’s a crisis and it’s getting worse.
When the National Union of Students surveyed over 1000 higher education students, 20% considered themselves to have a mental health problem, whilst 13% reported experiencing suicidal thoughts. In 2013, Freedom of Information requests to almost 100 universities revealed demand for counselling services had increased by an average of 24% over the previous four years, with five universities experiencing a doubling of demand in that time. Over the same period, commitment to funding these services across the sector was at best inconsistent. Whilst the data is sparse, it’s clear that not only are our universities are making us ill, but the problem is getting worse.
The development of this crisis cannot be separated from the neoliberal transformation of the university. Increasing financial precarity, workloads, assessment, focus on employability, student-staff ratios and the increasingly poor mental health of the academics who teach us are all complicit in actively producing a crisis of mental health on our campuses.
2. Care shouldn’t be left to universities alone.
University managers are well aware that the wellbeing of students in their institutions is deteriorating. Their response, at the highest levels, is concern about the extra care obligations this may put upon them. When Universities UK published its ‘good practice guide’ for student mental wellbeing earlier this year it emphasised that whilst universities must offer support for students, they must do this “at the same as making it clear to students, staff and external agencies that institutions are academic, not therapeutic, communities.” The idea that the universities we have today could ever be considered therapeutic will seem like a dark joke to many.
University-run counselling and support services are essential and we must fight to ensure they continue to be available. Indeed, recent student activism such as the occupations earlier this year at Goldsmiths, LSE and KCL have explicitly included the improvement of counselling services amongst their demands. Ultimately, however, this can never be enough. When universities are otherwise run in ways incompatible with our wellbeing, we can neither accept these services as an adequate answer to the mental health crisis or rely on them always being available.
3. We need our own institutions of support and care.
If we’re to be able to adequately care for ourselves in the neoliberal university, and perhaps even fight to create a university that doesn’t harm us, we need to build our own institutions. Formalised groups such as student-run Nightlines which provide a confidential and anonymous listening service do already exist and are invaluable, though their reach is limited and they are often under-resourced. Meanwhile student unions have the capacity to meaningfully contribute to our welfare, yet for the most part remain to be salvaged from their degeneration into managerialised student experience departments.
Care for one another needs to be built more fundamentally into our relationships. Our friendship groups, study groups and activist groups all need to be built around the knowledge that university makes many of us ill and one of the purposes they must play is to help us secure each others’ wellbeing.
4. The fight must go beyond stigma.
When many of the most popular mental health campaigns like Time to Change focus on the fight against stigma, we need to understand exactly what the stigma problem is.
The Equality Challenge Unit’s 2014 report on mental health in universities makes the issue abundantly clear – of those who have experienced mental health difficulties, 75% of students had disclosed it to a fellow student and 62% of staff had disclosed it to a colleague. Yet despite this, only 0.8% of students and 0.2% of staff had disclosed these difficulties to their university.
Evidently there’s still work to be done in making sure that when we admit we’re struggling to our peers we get the support we need in response. However the big problem this leaves untouched is our very reasonable fear about the consequences if we talk about our struggles to those in the university with power over us – whether it be the teacher, the boss or the bureaucrat. It’s this fear we must address, beyond simply stigma, and fight to make our positions in the university not dependent on our ability to conceal our poor mental health.
5. The mental is political.
To stand a chance of making our universities compatible with our mental health, we must recognise the fight as a political one. This means fighting specifically for respite from the features of university life most obviously and undeniably detrimental to our mental health, as the #endweek5blues campaign at Cambridge did in fighting for a reading week in response to only 55% of students reporting their workload as manageable in the National Student Survey. But it also means linking the fight for our mental health with other fights for better, fairer and safer universities.
6. The university gives us flexibility but anxiety too.
Responding to the mental health crisis in our universities need not and cannot entail shying away from the fact that many students have privileges others elsewhere in society lack, particularly the ability to take an unscheduled self-care day and to a certain extent choose our own work hours. Clearly a student with ten contact hours a week has opportunities to care for themselves and others that someone working a 9-5 job lacks.
At the same time, it’s essential we recognise that this flexibility comes as a by-product of the transformation of the university in ways which produce new pressures on our mental health. The move towards 24/7 libraries and workspaces, constant assessments, fewer contact hours and larger class sizes produces students who suffer from continual anxiety and crises of self-esteem, no matter how much flexibility they have in planning their day. Students therefore shouldn’t be afraid of articulating that the causes of our poor mental health are often different to those outside the university.
7. Radical learning and radical care.
Ultimately the fight for our mental health must be a fight to radically reconfigure the university and the ideas that inform what the university should be. This means when people tell us university is ‘supposed to be a challenge’, we tell them we can rise to far greater challenges when we’re healthy. It means we envision a university system that allows us to flourish and not suffer. It means we make our education a radical one in which we examine our own struggles.
However pessimistic we may be about the future of the university, we also have to make sure we don’t waste the unparalleled opportunities it still presents us with to find new, radical ways to care for ourselves and others.
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