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UK Universities Need To Support Student Mental Health

Universities in the UK must do more in order to Support Student Mental Health. A recent article in The Guardian discovered that a significant number of UK Universities have no policies in place for students who miss lectures as a result of mental illness. Out of the 21 universities, only four surveyed by the The Guardian have implemented intervention policies under which campus support services will contact students if they miss a defined number of classes. As a matter of fact, most policies penalises students for missed lectures. The university may give students an official warning before they’re offered support.

UK Universities Need To Support Student Mental Health

Most times, the onus is on the students to seek on-campus counselling services or mental health support services. Yet, students overwhelmingly preferred to access off-campus support, citing long wait times, lack of support services and hidden costs. Lecturers should also be required to contact student services regarding at-risk students, however, The Guardian discovered that there are few institutions who provide guidance or procedures for doing so.

Shocking ignorance

According to the attendance policy of Durham University, as cited in The Guardian report, ‘for a number of reasons, students may fail to make satisfactory progress: due to personal problems which are preventing him/her from concentrating on the work, poor management or simple laziness.’

‘Personal problems’ is a particularly poor choice of words here. This shifts all the blame and responsibility to the student and ignores the socioeconomic dynamics which may cause poor academic performance in the first place.

Our students are facing an unprecedented climate catastrophe, not to mention a student debt crisis, a mortgage debt crisis, and rampant political corruption which perpetuates all three of these plights and so many more.

These aren’t ‘personal problems.’ These are just a few items in a long list of debilitating stressors contributing to a mental health crisis in our university students.

A shred of common decency

This is an issue with which I have first-hand experience. During my first year at Lander University, I suffered a mental break which resulted in a brief hospitalisation and eventually led to a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.

I started seeing a psychiatrist and on-campus counsellor and began a trial-and-error journey of medication which seriously affected every aspect of my life: sleep, appetite, hygiene and academic performance.

Everything went off-kilter for about three months. Some mornings, I would be sick before class. Some nights, I wouldn’t sleep at all.

During that turbulent time, I missed eight poetry classes. The maximum allowed was three unexcused absences. One day after class, my lecturer asked me to stay behind. In a gentle voice, he informed me that, according to his own attendance policy, he was supposed to fail me for accumulating so many absences.

This could see me placed on academic suspension and put me at risk of losing my scholarships. But he chose not to fail me. He knew my situation, and I confided in him that my medication was affecting my sleep patterns and cognitive performance.

He knew I wasn’t just skipping class based on ‘simple laziness.’ As a writer with a lifelong passion for the craft, poetry was one of the classes I enjoyed most. My lecturer recognised that my wellbeing was more important than my grade in poetry – which, I can assure you, hasn’t affected any aspect of my life since the semester ended.

I was one of the lucky ones. I had a compassionate, trustworthy team of lecturers and mental health professionals to help me through that difficult time of my life. Others, however, aren’t so lucky.

Sounding the alarm

Last year, the suicide rate among young people increased to almost 24 percent. 45 percent of UK Universities employ a GP, with only 33 percent of Universities providing access to an NHS-certified mental health specialist. Three-quarters of young people and adults who are suffering from mental health issues aren’t receiving treatment.

It’s true that universities are not healthcare providers. In fact, it’s also true that universities can and should be doing more to support their students’ mental health, rather than shifting blame for poor academic performance to the student or putting more expectations on lecturers to fill the void.

In its 2017 Minding Our Future report, Universities UK provided viable solutions for assisting and supporting students. Creating student mental health teams, allowing students to ‘co-produce’ mental health support initiatives and increasing collaboration with local mental health care providers is just a start.

How many young students with bright minds and even adults are we going to loose to suicide and mental illness before universities finally listen and do what is right? Or will the UK government be forced to implement its plan to grade universities’ mental health services before higher education institutions change their policies and provide adequate support for students?