Sarah Ho explores grassroots strategies to overcome the mental health crisis at universities
Anxiety and depression are extremely prevalent in universities and dropout rates are increasing. Undoubtedly, there is a mental health crisis in our higher education system. Yet, at UCL, a third of the students who register to receive support are never actually seen and if they are, it is only after a minimum of 6 weeks waiting time. In addition to academic pressure and the emotional strain of university life, the poor situation of mental health services supposes a serious threat to students’ wellbeing.
A petition to the provost earlier this year did not solve the issue. Though the university has a financial surplus of tens of millions of pounds, the senior management still refuses to pay for an extra 6.5 counselors so that the students who register with Student Psychological Services (SPS) can get the support they need. This academic year has seen a new campaign taking lead, FundSPS, a new name with the same objective: pressuring the university into investing in student welfare. However, how much longer can this go on? While the Union and UCL’s management engage in this war of priorities, who will take care of the students on our campus who are suffering from mental health issues right now?
To seek an answer to these questions, I decided to speak to someone experienced in the field: Caroline Cole, lecturer at Oxford University and UCL alumna, as well as CEO of Broadway Lodge, one of the oldest and most respected residential treatment centres for addiction in the UK. Cole was kind enough to share with me her experience of working in the treatment sector. She has spent years lobbying for more government funding and finding strategies for treatment centres, like Broadway, to operate best in difficult financial times.
Broadway Lodge, based in Weston-super-mare, aims its treatment at middle-class individuals. At 2000 pounds a week for detoxing and 1500 for psychosocial treatment, the cost is not high-end, but neither is it scraping the barrel. However, many people with lesser economic means are still being rejected because they cannot afford residential rehabilitation there.
Regarding her experience, Cole explained that with a lack of government funding and lack of attention to mental health, bringing in more revenue streams to Broadway has been difficult. Public response to funding campaigns has been poor and reflects the harsh reality that the treatment sector faces in the UK. Moreover, local authorities are not willing to fund proper treatment. They mostly tender to community services; services that, as Cole says, “keep people small” and, in the case of addiction, maintain them on methadone drugs rather than offering them a real abstinence based recovery.
The problem of healthcare funding can be traced back to the highest political spheres. In early 2016, David Cameron became the first British Prime Minister in history to address mental health in a public speech. This was a hopeful sign, but, as we see now, it never percolated through to the commissioning groups. Theresa May’s tokenistic comments on “patchy” mental health services are no better, every time there is pressure on health spending, mental illness slips further down the priority queue. We need more action and less empty words.
In this sense, what the UCL student union and FundSPS campaign are facing, with the senior management, mirrors what organisations like Broadway Lodge are facing regarding the political agenda on a national level.
So what should be done? Should we look towards the neglected Cinderella service of the NHS, with their minimum 84 day wait? Should we seek private high-end treatment options, priced at thousands of pounds a week? Or should we keep placing hope on a university service that remains deliberately unable to care for all its students? There is no straightforward answer; however, Cole was able to offer me some important insight.
As she explained,“Instead of continuing to do what’s not working, we have to do something different. Everyone does it [fundraising] wrong. They tell you why they need the money, rather than finding out why the people that they are targeting want to give their money. I might say, ‘we need the money cause we need to save lives and support people into recovery’, but that might not have any meaning to you.” Instead, Cole uses a strategy that finds out why people who give want to give and why they are interested. This entails seeking help from people with a personal interest in or personal connection with mental health. She emphasises the need to investigate and harness this power.
In a university context, this grassroots strategy might mean reaching out to the alumni, or it might involve students with personal connections to mental health getting together and organizing a fundraiser to support other students through treatment. Considering almost everyone knows a friend or family member dealing with mental health issues, a passion to help could be the one positive outcome from this personal connection.
Either way, Cole asserts that we students need to be the support system that the university fails to be. She uses Narcotics Anonymous (NA) as a case in point. NA is an international mutual aid fellowship, run by addicts in recovery for addicts in recovery. Their success comes from the therapeutic value of addicts working together and sharing experiences to achieve a common goal: recovery. NA is evidence that, in the absence of professional therapists and treatment facilities, recovery is still possible. The inclusive attitude of the fellowship, hosting some meetings that are ‘open to all’, meaning anyone, addict or not, can attend, is also a great way to connect those in need of care and those who care about the cause, developing important relationships and ultimately, a community. Could we not apply this in a university setting?
Simply put, for change to happen, we need to change things for ourselves. And there are so many ways we can go about creating change.
I actually got into contact with Ms Cole through an event last month called Beat Addiction, hosted by Mind Over Matter. An evening of spoken word, live music and open mic brought people together to break down stigmas surrounding mental health, celebrate recovery, and raise funds so centres like Broadway can continue to save people’s lives. The Delusionists performed at Beat Addiction, and it was inspiring to learn that their newest member, Charlie, used to be an addict himself. For him, music was a way he could heal. Performing was his way of giving back to the community that supported him through his addiction whilst spreading the message of recovery. His intentions are evidence of the power of personal connections and of the community in helping one another.
Events like Beat Addiction are safe platforms for sharing pieces of work, and the arts can help create a more accessible and inclusive space. We can use our own narratives of development and transformation to inspire others, and for those who struggle to articulate their illnesses, artistic expression has therapeutic value. Furthermore, the possibilities for narrative-based spaces are endless. In a university context, they might range from poetry nights, like Beat Addiction, to online writing forums. to anonymous meetings and mutual aid groups, like NA. By better integrating the discourse of mental health into people’s lives, we can create a culture of acceptance towards mental health. There is hope in this venture.
Of course, this is not to say that student-created narrative-based spaces can replace the proper psychological services that UCL students deserve. Without a doubt, senior management here at UCL need to increase investments in student welfare and, until then, the student body needs to keep fighting for their SPS.
However, whilst we keep putting pressure on the university, we have to be creative with what we can be doing for ourselves. This gives the student body a degree of autonomy. With more action and less empty words, we have the power to support our peers and create change. The end goal is to create a community so no one is left feeling isolated and by sharing personal experiences and individual journeys, we can inspire and create just that.
As Caroline says, “Hope lies in doing it for ourselves”.