Posted on Fri 17 Jan 2020 at 11:15 by Christopher Carter
It is no secret that mental health is at the very top of many students’ list of priorities, both personally and in terms of the advocacy work done by their own SUs. Sadly, many universities – including Warwick – are still failing their students when it comes to providing a comprehensive system of mental health support.
The Student Minds charity recently published their University Mental Health Charter, which makes a number of recommendations for a comprehensive overhaul of mental health provision and support services in Higher Education. I was particularly pleased to note the section on Inclusive and Intersectional Mental Health Support (p70-71), as this is an area I have pushed for greater recognition of during my time as both a student and an Officer.
Some of the key problems underpinning this area are as follows:
- Many students face further challenges in life which may stem from being part of a minority group, and accessing mental health support can be a huge factor in this. These could include: LGBTUA+ students, black students and people of colour, disabled students, care leavers, carers, disabled students, mature students, students from widening participation backgrounds, first-generation students, international students, students for whom English is a second language, and so many more.
- Though the Equality Act 2010 has fed into many changes in the sector, access to mental health support is sadly not one of them.
- These individuals are too often classed as ‘hard-to-reach groups’, implying that they are themselves the problem. However, these students are not “hard to reach” - universities are simply trying to make them fit into a system which is not fit for purpose, and have thus failed to mitigate against the various differential barriers placed in front of them.
While I acknowledge how far we have come in recognising the importance of mental health, particularly within a university context (indeed, repeated calls for greater funding has resulted in many improvements during the last few years), a consistent failure to recognise that there is no “one-size-fits-all” remedy to mental health means that we are still so far from where we need to be.
Before students from minority backgrounds even set foot on a university campus, social and structural inequalities have already begun to impact on our mental health - whether this is due to the experience of existing on the periphery of society, the need to re-live or explain basic facts to convey how discrimination impacts on our mental health, language barriers, or the general accessibility of mental health services. Structural, social, cultural and personal differences mean that students and staff within the university environment all have different experiences, and thus need to receive support that is personally relevant to them.
For too long now, a failure to accommodate the voices of students, activists and those working in the HE sector from liberation communities has led to a lack of sufficient support for many young people. Without the backing of an authoritative body – not least the absurd notion conveyed by both Parliament and the press that “things are only important if certain people say so” - the damage caused by this has been insignificant. However, with the campaign for greater diversity in mental health provision now garnering support from bodies such as UUK, NUS, OfS, Smarten, UPP and AMOSSHE, institutions are now running out of excuses as to why they aren’t taking action.
Here at Warwick, we have seen some great changes to our Wellbeing Support Services, not least through the recent revamp and restructure of this area. Despite this, however, we still see differential access from certain groups of students. While the demographic of our student body has been transformed over the past decade, we have seen no significant shift in our approach to wellbeing to support this. We constantly celebrate our “diverse student body” but fail to recognise that this ‘diversity’ creates further barriers to students without widespread institutional support.
For students without the relevant lived experience, it may be tough to see the impact that this has – however, this in turn links to many of the key issues that the University, among many others, is already aiming to tackle. In terms of the Black Attainment Gap, there has been a failure to recognise that a holistic approach is required to even attempt to close this gap. Attaining well at University is tough enough as it is, even when we recognise that being open about our feelings and exercising are great routes to improved wellbeing. But what happens when your culture tells you that mental health is a myth and encourages you to bottle that up? Equally, what happens when your socioeconomic background means you simply cannot afford to pay £300 upfront for a gym membership to get that all-important exercise? This is true for a variety of issues which have an adverse effect on the student experience – and it is no surprise that without a recognition of what it actually is that helps students reach their potential, that gap will remain.
The provision of culturally-competent care formed a significant part of my manifesto this time last year, and has been my primary focus during my 6 months as Welfare & Campaigns Officer thus far. In recent months, I have been supporting the writing of a University-wide wellbeing strategy which will foreground many of these issues, and at the end of this month I will be attending a discussion regarding the Student Minds charter in Parliament. This will be followed by a Westminster Insights on Mental Health in HE event this March, at which these issues are also on the agenda. In short, this is an area that I was aware of before my term as a Sabb, and my long-term aim is for my work on this to hopefully continue far beyond it.
I am therefore calling on this University to take up and act on the recommendations in Student Minds’ report. We want to see a support system which consists of welfare advisers and counsellors with an understanding of the issues students really face. While I recognise that lived experience isn’t always possible, training about the various difficulties which can be exacerbated by structural oppression would go a long way. We want to see consultation with students from these groups that are apparently so “hard to reach” so that there is widespread understanding as to why the current system is not working. In short, we want to see an end to the kind of cursory lip-service which is so often paid to this crucial issue, and the creation of a support service which is genuinely accessible to all.