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Universities and Student Mental Health: Should the Government Intervene?

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

With the return of university students to campuses across the country, the topic of students’ mental health has once again made headline news.

Whilst the pandemic has undoubtedly put a considerable strain on our mental health, with anecdotal accounts suggesting loneliness and anxiety is skyrocketing, the crisis predates the Covid-19 era by years. So, we must ask, when will the calls of students for improved mental health provisions be answered? And what form should policy interventions in mental health funding and training take?

Whilst Government voices have been keen to push that the British public ‘are all in this together’, with the intent of rousing self discipline and morale, the assertion that we have all been equally affected by this epidemic is frankly bogus. One study of over 17,000 UK adults found that young people’s mental health had declined the worst of all groups as a result of the pandemic. Whilst lockdown and social distancing measures have been harmful for all ages and occupations, young people remain the group who are most dependent on their associations and relationships outside of the household, leading to a sharp rise in reported mental health problems.

The likelihood that an individual will develop mental health problems is dependent on a whole range of social, environmental and biological factors, however, it is certain that the extremities of stress and loneliness that students have faced have contributed to their wellbeing. So, we must ask to what extent are universities responsible for the mental health of their students, particularly when said universities are at least partially responsible for the circumstances that students now find themselves in?

Under the neo-liberalisation of education, the student is transformed into the customer, taking out a loan to purchase a university degree. But what exactly does this exchange cover? With universities increasingly treated by the state as businesses, they are left alone to configure their own mental health policies and approaches. Thus, this model depends upon universities being trustworthy enough to act in the interests of their students, by contributing the necessary funds to ensure the wellbeing of every student.

But with universities failing to provide budgets that would allow every student to access mental health provisions in favour of profit, we must ask should universities merely have the responsibility to provide teaching and education resources? Or should they be forced by the government to extend their services beyond pedagogy, to student welfare and health?

The short answer: absolutely. Government intervention in university mental health policy is essential to protect the welfare of students from being exploited by their institutions. For economic reasons alone, the funds poured into university campuses through tuition fees, accommodation fees and local businesses by university students absolutely warrant sufficient welfare provision in return.

In terms of services provided by higher-education institutions, the introduction of mandatory mental-health spending quotas would go a long way to ensure that students do not have to sacrifice their right to access mental-health provisions for course or university preferences. For example, a FOI request by The Tab in 2016 found that whilst universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Exeter, spent £48.25, £40.48 and £38.62, per student per year on counselling services, the University of Central Lancaster spent only £4.64 per student, with the University of Warwick spending as little as £11.92.

This is not to suggest that throwing money at mental health services is the cure-all for mental health crises. It is imperative that funding is spent in the right ways. Whilst mental health awareness campaigns are essential to educating those of the prevalence of the issue, funding must be made available for those students facing immediate mental health crisis. There is no one-size-fits-all counselling method that can improve the outcomes of students; mental health issues are diverse and immensely complex, necessitating a range of considered interventions and referrals.

Hence, institutions must have the capacities to deal and deal well with such complex circumstances, with assessments and services being provided by highly trained and specialised individuals. Equally, all members of staff should be adequately trained on mental health policy and awareness, to allow for as many early interventions as possible. And even more importantly, universities must provide funding towards research, so that the counselling programmes and interventions that work best for students can be identified, to improve the likelihood of successful treatment.

One essential recommendation to the government is that students are allowed to register with GP practices at both their home and university addresses. This way, students don’t find themselves severed from mental health services once the University term is over.

Perhaps most imperative is the role of universities in mental health journeys, should not merely be to get students off their books; counselling should lay for foundations for long term mental wellbeing. Universities should be and could be spaces in which teenagers are nurtured into healthy, happy and well-adjusted adults.

Success cannot crudely be determined by graduate employment statistics; if universities cannot provide an environment from which mental wellbeing can be improved and maintained, they are failing institutions. Further, one must consider if the student experience scores according to which universities are ranked reflect the mental health services they provide or if they choose to omit it. If the former were to be true, it wouldn’t be irrational to speculate that some ‘prestigious’ UK institutions may fare far worse in university league tables.

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