Parents have a right to know whether their children are suffering. From mental health issues to difficult relationships, from glandular fever to ludicrous flatmates – parents have a right to be informed and to support. However, they need to be able to step away and to take the back seat at times. University is a situation which affords this.
Instead, universities ought to take responsibility for the mental health of their students. The suggestion that parents should be better informed, have more of a role in their children’s lives and mental health while at university is like putting a plaster on a bullet-wound; probably quite well intended and definitely not fixing the problem. Parents may also not be the immediate port of call for support for many students. If the problem is that students struggling with their mental health are receiving exponentially less support from their universities, the area for improvement must lie primarily with the institutions.
Even though parents often display more concern for students’ mental health than universities, it does not mean they are the perfect support system. The majority of parents are not mental health experts and are thus no more equipped to deal with a serious condition than a personal tutor. But being a loving parent has no known power to bypass NHS waiting lists or the expense of private therapy to help their child in a way which a university could not. This is if parents are willing to help with their children’s mental health.
If earlier generations were characterised by a nuanced and sympathetic view of mental health, the word ‘snowflake’ would not be so commonplace. There are so many instances in which parents themselves could be doing their fair share of damage to their child’s mental health in the first place. Any given student’s mental health issues may stem from a myriad of experiences; former abuse, trauma or neglect. No one should be expected to turn to the cause of their suffering for help, especially when there may be another option. Finally, parents have the option to reach out and ask about their child’s mental health at university – this is the age of phone calls and Facetime and a shuttle flight from Edinburgh Airport to Heathrow. Personal tutors will correspond with parents, or other emergency contacts, if they have to. Parents can already be involved in their child’s mental health, even if they’re at university, and yet here we are with a student mental health crisis.
The role universities have in their students’ wellbeing may not be as personal as that of a parent, but it is just as significant. Students are a university’s raison d’etre; to move into their future it is upon our shoulders they must stand. Even with the most brilliant of academics or a snappy advertising campaign, a lack of students would result in a startling lack of university. If you look at it completely cynically, a good student mental health service is a brilliant monetary investment. Better mental health across the board will contribute to better results and a higher level of student satisfaction. If they’re willing to gain so much from students, then universities ought at the least to be prepared to protect them as an investment.
Indeed, at the University of Edinburgh the bones of a mental health service are already in place – the Advice Place, PALS systems, personal tutors, a chaplaincy – all that they require is investment. There is no reason universities shouldn’t take responsibility for student mental health – and they are certainly more qualified to do so than any other.