Universities Are Catastrophically Failing Students on Mental Health – Here’s How We Fight Back

by Charlie Macnamara

6 February 2018

UCL Fund Our Mental Health Campaign

Students across the UK are suffering from underfunded university and NHS mental health services with too often tragic results. A campaign by students at University College London shows how we can fight back.

Going to university has always been a potentially stressful experience. Typically, students uproot their lives and move to a new part of the country, or a new country entirely, losing their established support networks in the process. But the number of students suffering from a clinical mental health problem at university in the UK has increased by a factor of 5 over the last 10 years.

The student mental health crisis is much discussed in the media, but the causes are hard to pin down. That said, it’s clear that pressures on students have increased hugely as a result of the marketisation of our universities. Students are left with unprecedented debts from fees and increasingly extortionate rents for accommodation, as well as more pressure within their degrees—now, often felt to be a one-shot affair due to their expense.

The scale of change needed to fix these problems goes far beyond the scope of current public debate about student mental health. And when mental health is talked about, solutions generally focus too narrowly on awareness-raising and destigmatisation—important in themselves, but only a plaster to the wound.

In this context, the so-called mental health crisis has become a buzzword that blocks meaningful action on the things that can actually be changed for the better. University managers, the government and lately even the royal family routinely deploy a rhetoric valorising individualised self care, in what often feels like a concerted effort to distract from chronically underfunded mental health services.

In 2016, the Higher Education Policy Institute published a report which argued that universities need to triple their spending on mental health services. Evidence shows that counselling services are highly effective for treating mental illness—both for those with critical and less severe problems—but both NHS and university mental health services are failing students as a result of underfunding.

Of course, good healthcare is not the only solution we need to help students with mental illness: the old adage applies that prevention is better than cure and we must begin to consider how we reshape universities so as to stop causing harm to students and to enable them to flourish. At the same time, when NHS providers are unable to provide adequate care to students—forced to cut mental health service provision drastically under austerity—universities must step up and take their duty of care to students more seriously. Otherwise the outcome will be tragic,  as with Bristol University .

Take University College London for example. A comprehensive report published by Students’ Union UCL this year found that over 33% of students suffer from clinical levels of mental distress during their time at the university. Another 10-15% suffer from moderate levels of mental distress. And over the last 10 years student numbers at UCL have more than doubled, but funding for the university’s mental health services has not kept up.

The 2016 Higher Education Policy Institute report recommends universities should have a student-to-counsellor ratio of around one to 1,358. Following their reasoning, for UCL to provide best practice mental health services for their student population just shy of 40,000, they would need to employ around 30 counsellors. They currently employ only 13.

As a result of insufficient funding, many UCL students have reportedly been left waiting up to 3 months before being invited to see counsellors. I experienced this firsthand. In in my final year of study at UCL, I experienced depression, but when I applied for help from the university’s Student Psychological Services I never even got a reply.

According to the Students’ Union report the service is operating at 30% over capacity, meaning many of those on the waiting list do not get seen at all. UCL, like many universities, is clearly failing in its duty of care towards students.

The UCL Fund Our Mental Health Services campaign (FOHMS) began in September 2017. They campaign is demanding a funding increase of £340,000 per year for the university’s Student Psychological Services to pay for the hiring of an additional 6.5 full time counsellors in order to deal with the current waiting times overload and to allow for the removal of an arbitrary six-session cap on counselling sessions for individual students.

The campaign is also demanding students on interruption are allowed to access the service, as well as specific action be taken to ensure that counsellors are culturally competent, such that all the many diverse demographics at UCL–and therefore the differing ways in which mental health issues can become manifest along demographic lines–are represented.

In the context of the nationwide student mental health crisis, the action taken by students at UCL sets a precedent for struggles in universities across the UK. The FOHMS campaign is grounded in a combination of the Students’ Union’s incisive research and solid grassroots organising that has allowed the campaign to incorporate a wide range of demands beyond just funding. This has given them a base to organise across a number of different fronts—from petitions signed by thousands of students and staff, to direct actions that have already forced the university to take notice.

Following a disruptive on-campus protest by students during UCL’s graduate open day on 6 December 2017, university management presented a package of changes to mental health services at the university.

Frustratingly, although branded an “overhaul” of UCL’s mental health services, the offering was made up mostly of only cosmetic changes–including the relaunch of a number of facilities that had already been active for the previous year. And crucially there was no commitment to increase funding for clinical counselling services.

I am hopeful UCL students will win their battle for adequately funded frontline healthcare, but this is a struggle we can only gain from spreading the campaign further afield. With coordinated action across universities, student campaigners can create a climate that encourages universities to be the first to come good.

At the same time, UCL students are already pioneering tactics for how to leverage this sort of coordinated action, creating resources that will enable others to start up similar campaigns and planning media tactics, such as a national league table of mental health spending, that will ramp up pressure on the worst offending institutions.

Universities like UCL are clearly failing in their duty of care towards students and the FOHMS campaign has made it clear that they will not be allowed to hide behind spin and empty rhetoric while students are at risk. It is through this struggle that students will be able to come to articulate the wider changes needed in our universities. Students up and down the country should join the fight for the mental health services they deserve.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.