We Should Celebrate (Not Challenge) Mental Health Awareness on Campus

‘Procrastinating, being over-tired, lacking in concentration, and eating poorly’ are of course all characteristics of a student life which involves working hard, and usually partying even harder. However these traits often stem from mental health problems that are not related to student life and any attempt to treat them as a necessary part of studying is both, extremely naïve and dangerous.

Most universities across the UK now offer advice and counselling services which provides support to students who aren’t being taught to be mentally ill, but are simply seeking to get their head sorted in order to learn and achieve to the best of their abilities. This is great, but services have been increasingly put under an ever greater strain as a result of austerity, which highlights the connection between capitalism, austerity and mental health (a healthy population doesn’t make money for private companies or NHS contractors). Between 2010 and 2015, £600m had been lost from the NHS budget specifically for Mental Health services in England according to mental health charity, Mind. Less money means less support and less support means students with mental health conditions will face greater difficulties in completing their studies as best they can. Despite these cuts, universities are trying to pour more resources into mental health campaigns.

Campaigns on campuses are now occurring throughout the academic year which is an indication that universities are finally beginning to treat mental health seriously as they recognise that simply discussing these issues during Fresher’s week does not go far enough. However, not everyone agrees with this vital step forward. In an article entitled ‘Teaching Students to be Mentally Ill’, the Scottish NUS faces criticism for a campaign which aimed to tackle the stigmatisation of mental health. What possible justification is there for being so against a campaign which seeks to stop mental health being a taboo subject on campuses in the UK? These campaigns should be celebrated and appreciated by all students, not challenged and attacked.

Laura Potter, a student and Mental Health activist, believes that “mental health campaigns are increasingly important in a society which marginalises the voices of young people. Demand for university mental health services has risen 50% over the last five years, and over 20% within a year at Queen Mary. This significant rise in demand is no surprise given the political climate of austerity, amid a growing student population. University services across the UK are struggling to keep up with the demand”.

Queen Mary Student’s Union VP Welfare, Adam Sparkes also highlighted the impact that austerity has had on our student services. “The main issue we have across the board with all of our services is simple. A lack of resources. As the demand for support, specifically mental health support increases to levels never seen before, Universities including QMUL are not matching the demand with an increase of funding for the relevant services. To a degree that is not ‘always’ the University’s fault, here at QMUL budgets are distributed as ‘fairly’ as possible, but what is needed is a greater commitment from central Government to provide extra resources for Universities”. This is why we, as Young Greens, have campaigned tirelessly against austerity, raised awareness of the role of ideologically driven economic policy on student health and tried to offer ways to help other students cope with mental health issues. Universities are simply struggling as their ‘belts’ get tightened further and further by this increasingly draconian Conservative government.

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Lucy and Jo taking part in the “infantilising” Art Therapy workshop during our Mental Health Fundraising Week, February 2016, Queen Mary, University of London.

Queen Mary Young Greens were also mentioned in the above article for holding an “infantilising” art therapy session during the last academic year. Once again, one fails to understand how running activities aimed at reducing stress can be seen as such a negativity, especially when advice and counselling services at QMUL are under so much strain. The Young Greens held a number of successful activities that week to raise money for Student Minds, inform the student population about the interrelationship between politics and mental health and helped students find ways of dealing with stress that do not require booking appointments and sitting in front of a psychologist.

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Our guest panel for “The Mental Health Deficit: Student Minds Failed by Capitalism”, March 2016, Queen Mary, University of London.

The article over focuses on stress, appearing to neglect mental health beyond this one condition. Stress is mostly definitely an unavoidable part of any degree; it would be impossible for one to say that completing a degree without experiencing any stress is ‘normal’. But we must not forget to acknowledge the fact that the intensities of stress can vary greatly and we all deal with this differently. Some people manage it well, others don’t. Not only that, but usually stress is not alone. Anxiety. Depression. Schizophrenia. A whole array of mental health conditions are exacerbated by stress and are interconnected with one another, so telling someone suffering from serious mental health issues that feeling stressed out is a normal part of degree level study is quite frankly, very ignorant and potentially, incredibly dangerous. There are many other factors that can mean some students have much more than just stress to deal with compared to others, and forgetting this fails to treat those with serious mental health conditions fairly and equally and is, in our opinion, a form of discrimination, pure and simple.

Being a student doesn’t mean that we stop being humans with lives full of problems relating to money or relationships that can temporarily impact our mental health. Late this summer, my grandmother was suddenly diagnosed with advanced Ovarian Cancer. The impact of this on both my family and I has been huge. Studying a degree is hard work, but the anxiety and emotional distress  I continue to face regarding my grandmothers wellbeing places a great strain upon me mentally which of course is going to affect my ability to study at times. So please don’t “infantilise” me by telling me to ‘suck it up’ or (even worse) ‘man up’. This doesn’t mean I have a mental illness, but it does mean I need support from counselling services on campus in order to avoid spiralling into a worsening state of depression. These feelings cannot carry on without me seeking help from mental health services.

So in the words of Emily Dinsmore; don’t let your university “pathologise you or infantilise you”. But in the words of Jordan Smith, don’t let others tell you that your mental health is not something to take seriously. It is.

(Queen Mary Young Greens would like to say thank you [on behalf of all students] to QMUL for their excellent Advice and Counselling Services, their continued campaigning to de-stigmatise mental health and their fabulous and hard working Welfare Officers).

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