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students mental health

Why are university mental health services still failing students?

No-one expects university to be easy, but some are struggling from a bit more than some stressful essay deadlines and a bit of fresher's flu.

Recently, there's been a rising number of students suffering from mental illnesses, with some universities simply not doing enough to help them, which often has fatal consequences. From July 2016 to July 2017, the rate of student suicides was 4.7 per 100,000 people, or one person killing themselves every four days, with dropout rates also increasing year by year. During that same year, the University of Bristol came under scrutiny following the discovery that 12 students had ended their own lives over an 18-month period. Some newspapers have sneered about what "snowflakes" us students are, but this doesn't change the fact that people are dying.

Maybe it's about time the people in charge—not just universities, but the government too—marked the occasion by making the changes to mental health services that could have saved them.

After the multiple suicides at Bristol, the university promised to invest more in its mental health and wellbeing services, but by November 2018 these services—according to students protesting for better access—remained insufficient to meet their needs. Last World Mental Health Day, in 2018, City of London students organised a protest calling for shorter counselling waiting times, and a few months before, in May, University of Liverpool student Ceara Thacker killed herself in her halls; this September an inquest revealed appalling failures by the university in their duty of care towards her. She had to wait over two months for help after expressing suicidal thoughts, mental health services failed to communicate properly with both her GP and other university departments, and when she was hospitalised in February 2018 following an attempted overdose, no-one informed her parents. Poor communication was also a key factor in the death of Natasha Abrahart, one of the 12 Bristol students: the university's wellbeing services were allegedly not informed of her suicidal thoughts, despite her having emailed a member of staff about them.

Universities have often introduced cheap, Instagram-friendly initiatives like sessions with therapy pets and free mindfulness classes around exam periods—which is great, but no match for proper investment in mental health services.

It probably isn't much help, either, to the University of Surrey student who was banned from keeping her support hamster, an important source of comfort against her severe anxiety, with her on campus. We're in the middle of an epidemic and something has to change.

The problem is, it's not as simple as blaming universities.

It's not just the pressure of assignments that are worsening our mental health—it's the high costs of living, when many maintenance loans barely cover the rent, having to sacrifice potentially therapeutic "down-time" with a sports class or a favourite comedy to make up the difference with hours of part-time work. Then there are the loans themselves—amounts of money given and repayment terms vary, and for with the information we are given in sixth form about how we won't have to pay them back until we're earning a certain amount, it doesn't make the average student feel any better about being £50,000 in debt by the time they graduate.

And why do students need to borrow so much money? Because the government has decided that we're the ones who should be paying it. Since free higher education was scrapped in 1998, university fees have gradually climbed higher and higher. Just after 1998, tuition cost £1,000 per year. By 2006, that had risen to £3,000; now, it's a whopping £9,250. With so much money now coming from the students themselves, universities are expected to act like businesses, with us (or our parents, if we're really lucky) as the consumers. Their main priority should be giving us an education; instead, it's making a profit. Rather than encouraging students to follow their passions and just enjoy learning, universities are under pressure to churn out graduates who can take on high-earning jobs so that they can start paying back those hefty student loans as soon as possible.

And that's not the only way government policy is making students' lives harder. Spending on public services has been slashed repeatedly in recent years, and in spite of promises of "millions" for the NHS in every new budget, we've seen little to no improvement in high waiting times and huge staff shortages—both of which impact on mental health services and make it harder for everyone to access support—including Goldsmiths student Becky Marshall, who 'fell between the cracks' of local trusts and killed herself in 2017.

An equally poor lack of funding for secondary schools means that, for lots of students, their first week at university is also their first chance to access psychological help. Consequently, students in desperate need of support aren't getting what they need from the NHS, so they turn to their university—and can't get it from them either. (Besides, academics are not mental health professionals, and student counselling isn't even meant to replace professional medical help.) Put all of these collective failures together and it's easy to see why vulnerable students—like Ceara Thacker, Natasha Abrahart and too many others—are left with nowhere to turn, believing that the only fix for their problems is the most permanent, irreversible and devastating one.

It's clear that universities need to do a much better job in safeguarding students' mental health. But it shouldn't be their job alone, not when it's so difficult for the most vulnerable to see a doctor, and when no counsellor or personal tutor can do anything to change the crippling financial problems they have to cope with, on top of pre-existing illnesses and academic stress. Until those in power start doing a better job at allowing the most vulnerable to access the medical and financial stability they desperately need, students are going to keep suffering- along with the rest of the country.

And at the end of the day, if neither universities nor the government are willing to help students access decent medical help or professional talking therapy, then surely the very least the former can do is let us have our bloody support hamsters.