Taking Mental Health Seriously

Taking Mental Health Seriously

As another year of university commences, will there be any progress in the sufficiency of UCL’s student mental health services?

Bristol University was placed at the forefront of the student mental health care crisis after experiencing 11 student suicides in just two years. However, it is not an anomaly, and the prominence of student mental health care and the inadequacy of university welfare services is not exclusive to a singular institution. In fact, it has become an increasingly prevalent and troublesome topic throughout the UK. According to Universities UK, over the past five years 94% of universities has seen a ‘sharp increase’ in the number of people trying to access student wellbeing services – services that are underfunded and therefore ill-equipped to sufficiently handle the soaring demand. Universities minister Sam Gyimah said that universities risk “failing a generation” if students are not given access to better mental health care.

This failure to provide mental health care, and most importantly enough of it, has already become extremely evident. UCL is no exemption in its shortcomings on wellbeing services. Last December, I reported on the student protest organised by the campaign ‘UCL: Fund Our Mental Health Services.’ The campaign was started in order to call for an expansion of the Student Psychological Services. They were demanding a £340,000 investment and an additional 6.5 FTE counsellors. On the same day of the protest, deliberately held on Postgraduate Open Day, UCL released a list of plans to ‘revamp’ their services. Whilst it was an acknowledgment of the necessity for change, these improvements read as seemingly vague and indefinite. They included a new phone service, the development of an information app on mental health services, and the expansion from “one to six of the number of student support and wellbeing advisers and coordinators.” This served more to highlight the deficiency of the services rather than as an act of reassurance and development.

After I contacted UCL directly for a response on the insufficiency of the SPS and their plans for improvement in the future, I received back a single statement from the Director of Media Relations: “We take mental health extremely seriously and have adapted our service to meet the increasing demands.”

Since then, there has been progress. After months of grassroot campaigning from students and activists – including the launch of open letter to the student management on the Union website signed by a number of UCL counsellors and professors – UCL approved an investment of £140,000, and agreed to bring the current waiting time down from up to 20 weeks to a maximum of six. They also agreed to table a request for two additional counsellors and a mental health specialist. It was a success for the campaign, but only to an extent. The funding would meet merely a third of what had been requested.

As another year of university commences, I can’t help but remain sceptical of the statement I received back in January and fearful of the consequence of such striking shortcomings. UCL has approximately 41,500 students, one of the largest populations in the UK. From 2015-17 they employed just 13 FTE practioners, 12 FTE counsellor/therapists and ‘0.8’ FTE psychiatrists.That’s around 3,200 students for one FTE practioner.

With such a large student body and escalating mental health rates – in the past 10 years it is estimated that there has been a five-fold increase in the number of students disclosing mental illness to their institution – it could not be more discernible that the figures don’t match up. UCL also does not offer any out of hours, weekend or crisis support. On their website under the subtitle ‘Helping students in crisis’ it states,“The best way to manage a crisis is to avoid it developing.” A 20 week waiting time hints at the irony.

More significantly, this is a situation that affects an undercurrent that is deeper than troubling statistics. I, alongside many others, have personally seen or experienced the tragic reality that lies behind the numeric figures. At the end of last year a close friend of my housemate’s, a 1st year UCL student, was found after committing suicide in his halls for residence. From what I had heard about him he was an outgoing, popular young man with a bright future ahead of him. He had been on the waiting list to receive help from student services. Whilst mental health is a dense and complex issue, it does beg the question – would someone with a broken bone be forced to wait that long before seeing a professional?

The campaign is restarting this year but does not yet have any detailed or specific plans. I was told that it is unlikely the new funding will come into effect anytime soon because it will take time to hire new people and implement changes. Their immediate plan is to chase up the funding bid and its timescale. This is an issue, you could say a pandemic, that is evidently not being allocated the necessary resources. University is stressful, particularly at the start. You are thrown into a foreign environment, away from your family and friends, with a newfound, overwhelming independence. Students need to have a transparent and accessible support system. UCL, alongside other universities, must be held accountable and implement these changes rather than providing lip service, before it, like it tragically has for others, becomes too late.

This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine

Artwork by Laura Riggall