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support hamster

Surrey student denied "support hamster" after six month struggle

The name of the student has been changed for privacy purposes.

A final-year Surrey Chemistry student took to Twitter last Tuesday to express her outrage after being told that she would not be allowed to move in with her "support hamster".

Lauren (pseudonym), said she was "angry" after battling for six months to let her pet live with her on campus. According to Lauren, the University said they simply did not have such a policy in place which would let her keep her service animal with her.

She further explained the reasons behind her appeal:

"My anxiety and panic attacks (of which I can have multiple a day) prevent me from being able to study or even look after myself properly. I can go days without eating. My hamster is the only support to help me. How much does someone have to suffer to be supported?"

Although to many the idea of a support hamster may appear unconventional, her tweet underlined a key issue.

Many institutions across the UK are experiencing a student mental health crisis: across the 2015/16 academic year period, around 15,000 first-year students reported having a mental health problem, five times higher than figures from a decade ago. Figures from around this period also show a 210% increase in student dropouts as a result of mental health issues, and even more worryingly, a 79% increase in student suicides. In an article written by YouGov in 2016, as many as one in four students are living with some form of mental health issue, mostly anxiety or depression.

In January 2018, Student Minds published a book outlining their research into student mental health and the need for institutions to provide adequate support to young, vulnerable people: in particular, it details how many academics lack the resources, training or guidelines to best recognise, signpost and safeguard students who may be suffering with their mental health, or at risk of harm.

Many students I have spoken to that have tried to access any on-campus resources have often felt that not enough support was available to them; with an ever-growing number of mental health problems amongst students—and with limited manpower or resources—the University of Surrey Centre for Wellbeing is often swamped, and fails to provide more extensive or long-term services to those in need.

What's more, universities are often plagued by a "mental health issue culture", where unhealthy and irresponsible behaviours are celebrated and mocked: high stress manifesting in anxiety, sleep disruption, insomnia, caffeine or alcohol dependence, low mood. Of course, no one is a perfectly oiled machine, and I myself have been guilty of pulling countless all-nighters to finish the odd paper, or shot-gunning so much Red Bull that I can see through time. But the issue lies in the fact that we are normalising and being complicit in facilitating unhealthy lifestyles which can negatively affect our physical and mental well-being. And for those really suffering or at risk, it's hard for them to truly recognise within themselves that they are in need of help, as it seems to be something simply everyone struggles with to an extent.

For many, a self-referral to local NHS-based treatment is often necessary. With extremely long waiting times and very limited services available on the NHS, students often feel stuck, having no other support system in place whilst their mental health actively declines. With mental health services, it's much of the same issue as what we see in our educational institutions: the NHS Mental Health Bulletin 2017-18 Annual Report found that there had been an overall increase in the number of people who accessed mental health services by 1.4%, with the greatest increase felt by young adults. But with continuous budget cuts made to our national health services, organisations can't bridge the gap.

University represents a formative period of transition in your life where you have to adjust to so much stress, balancing lectures with study, paid employment and your free time, being away from your family and friends—who are often the main support network for many—for long periods at a time.

For young adults, this can trigger or exacerbate mental health issues which can really impede on academic performance and overall daily life. Would the solution to a growing mental health crisis in the UK be to provide all university students with a hamster in each and every dorm room? I'm not too sure. But it's clear that for so many people like Lauren, there are very few resources or guidelines in place to help students cope and recover from mental health issues, and without her hamster with her, Lauren loses her only viable support system.

More needs to be done to change the conversations we are having about mental illness in our universities, and without a greater focus on identifying, treating and preventing mental health issues amongst their students, the chances of such a situation improving are unlikely.

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