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The University must provide better services for students’ mental health

Student well-being has finally taken centre stage on campus. Jonny Ross-Tatam’s successful EUSA presidential campaign last year, the Mental Health Awareness Week in February, well-being workshops, and plans for mental health support training for personal tutors have all given the issue prominence. And it is high time.

The University of Edinburgh has witnessed the highest recent increase in students’ demand for counselling across the UK, with anxiety being the most frequent issue faced by students.

Despite rising numbers of those seeking help, the figures released do not include affected students who do not ask for help out of shame.

The process of destigmatising mental health issues and fully recognising their authenticity and urgency is long and painful. Astonishingly, a 21st century society can be as naive and disrespectful as to dismiss less visible diseases as less pressing or luxury problems. Those who are suffering have to endure patronising ‘diagnoses’ and pseudo-advice such as ‘We all feel stressed at times’, which is humiliating and completely misses the point.

Due to a widespread discrepancy between the popular image of student life and reality, students especially are often not taken seriously. Pre-honours students in particular are portrayed as consistently indulging in Hive-till-five – recover – repeat, day trips and socials because ‘first and second year doesn’t count’.

Imagine how bitter this must sound to students who struggle with the workload and expectations of a Russell Group university, as well as increasing living costs because they do not come from a privileged environment. Or for those who do not feel motivated but frustrated by constant reminders of how important society involvement, volunteering and unpaid internships are and that the job market is a pool full of piranhas ready to tear graduates into pieces.

At university, we are being told that ‘First year is the new fourth year’, that good is not good enough and that we are basically walking CVs. We have good reasons to be anxious.

Obviously, university must prepare students for the real world, which is not a pink, fluffy, pomegranate-flavoured universe. Nevertheless, or just because of that, students deserve warnings about the mental health risks related to the stressful and demanding time we live in, and they deserve immediate and easily accessible help if they are feeling overwhelmed by expectations and social pressure at university.

The counselling service supports students facing mental health issues without an attested disability. Recent developments have led to worrying flaws in the system though.

This semester, waiting lists for the counselling service have increased from six to eight weeks, which leaves students, whose academic performance and success suffers due to their conditions, desperate. Moreover, the counselling service takes a one-size-fits-all approach and offers a clear time window – previously six, now four counselling sessions –  during which students should sort their lives out. This only puts additional pressure onto students.

Considering longer waiting lists and fewer granted counselling sessions, it remains unclear where the additional resources which were apparently allocated to the counselling service have gone.

What students need and deserve is consistency in the university’s often claimed concern about student well-being and recognition of the indispensability of mental health to well-being. In practice, this means more easily and quickly available mental health support, including emergency support.

Nobody in their right mind would not put anyone with a broken leg onto an eight week waiting list or set a time limit for the healing process. Why should students in need for mental health support be treated any differently?

Image credit: Flickr: Jeffery Wong

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The Student Newspaper 2016