Today – 10th October – is World Mental Health Day.
A proper understanding of wellbeing and mental health issues (and the support systems for young people) at many UK universities appears to be negligible.
It’s a mess that needs to be managed with immediacy, compassion and, in some places, a complete overhaul of the universities’ “duty of care”.
Here’s an article from the Guardian, explaining the problems that one young woman had in her first year at university, followed by dismissive, defensive responses from two Russell group universities that truly demonstrate their culpability and dereliction of duty when it comes to the care of their students.
The young woman in the article, Meg Zeenat Wamithi, explains how the transition from school to university was much harder than anticipated. Her anxiety caused her to miss lectures – leading to increased anxiety, and culminating in a downward spiral of mental health deterioration. Fortunately for Meg she was at a university that listened and King’s College is now working with her to develop a Mental Health Action Plan.
The response from Warwick University . . . . . . .
“Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University says that university is a training to be an adult, and students shouldn’t expect handholding. “This idea is a consumerist one. It is saying kids have to feel good at university as they are paying for it,” he says.”
What the actual . . . .?
And from Cardiff University?
“Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, says: “It isn’t practical to expect universities, who might have 40,000 students, to act in loco parentis.” However, he admits universities have “hidden behind” data protection laws that mean problems must be kept confidential. “There are lots of things you can do, like raising awareness among staff and students about symptoms of mental health problems and who to speak to.”
It isn’t practical?
Not practical, or too costly?
When young people go to university, consider the lack of preparation they’ve had for self-managed learning. They’re micro-managed to the nth degree in the last few years of their school life. They’re supported through every dotted ‘i’ and crossed ‘t’. Exam responses are rehearsed verbatim with excessive frequency. Learning is contrived, regulated and rigid – in very many cases.
At some universities there’s a total lack of contact with their “teachers” other than a fortnightly tutor time with 19 other students.
Add to this the fact that these young people are living on their own, managing budgets, learning how to live with strangers, often in an environment that is alien to them and it’s no wonder that many of them require some additional support on the wellbeing front.
Consider also a young person’s reluctance to admit that there are problems. Even if they are accepting of their issues, they frequently lack any knowledge on where and how they can access support.
Add to this the ludicrous confidentiality clause which means that if a young person is demonstrating signs of poor mental health the university can’t contact the parents of the student.
As the minister for Higher Education, Sam Gyimah, says on his aim to raise the profile of mental health at universities:
“This is not about mollycoddling or cushioning students from the experiences that are part and parcel of university life. But if someone has threatened to take their life three or four times, and as an institution you know that but you only contact their parents after they have done it, that is just not acceptable.”
Damn right it’s not acceptable, and neither it is acceptable for a university to say they’ve done their duty if they’ve emailed a student four or five times about their lack of attendance. And neither it is acceptable to be intransigent when there is a problem but their systems don’t allow them to offer flexible alternatives to accommodate the needs of a young person with mental health issues.
The worst-case scenario is that young people take their own lives because of their dejection and deterioration.
Read this article about James Murray – a father who lost his 19-year-old son, who – unbeknown to him – had been thrown out of university and took his own life after months of health issues, lack of attendance at lectures etc, etc etc.
He wants universities to “introduce a system that would automatically pull together disparate data – from schools, the student, attendance, assessment and library access. Multiple red flags would trigger an early warning alert and a meeting with a student support professional.”
Is that really too much to ask?
Additionally, one of the simplest actions is to ask students – in their first week at university – to sign a consent form, allowing the university to contact their parents/carers/trusted adult if they “notice” a problem.
Another simple action is to use some of the £9000+ per annum money that each student pays the university to have a compulsory fortnightly 1:1 tutorial with a named tutor for EVERY first-year student – particularly important for those students who have less than 10 hours lectures a week, and consequently don’t have as much contact with the university staff.
A report in January 2018 outlined the vast and widespread problems of mental health issues in our universities, and in the nine months since this report was published, we wonder whether most universities have responded to this.
The account of the issues in the Executive Summary is spot on.
It’s not as if there isn’t guidance on the subject.
This document offers credible solutions that every university could implement. We would add the consent to contact parents as one of the recommendations should a young person demonstrate severe mental health problems.
It is no longer, nor was it ever, acceptable for universities to ignore the general wellbeing of their students. It’s not acceptable for young people to abandon their studies because universities haven’t got systems in place to accommodate their needs. It’s not acceptable for universities to turn a blind eye to problems such as depression because these young people are supposed to be adults and should jolly well get on with it – as if all adults are mentally well!
This is a huge problem that actually doesn’t require huge costly changes – only changes that enable young people to enjoy and be supported in their university lives.
If only the universities could overcome their intransigence.