What can universities do to help students with mental illnesses?

Content Warning: Suicide 

No one likes to feel forgotten. When pressure to succeed is at an all-time high and social struggles weigh heavily, are students being provided with the support systems they need to remain mentally sound? 

The Guardian reports that students disclosing mental health issues in the UK has increased five fold in the past decade, and suicide rates amongst university students reached an all-time high in 2015, with 134 recorded suicides according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank. These numbers reflect nothing short of a national health crisis that needs to be addressed.

That being said, universities throughout the UK have made strides in their recognition and understanding of it. Here at the University of Edinburgh, support is widely available to students, and mental wellbeing is a frequently addressed topic at orientations for incoming and visiting students. The university’s website boasts available counseling for students in person as well as via email. Many other universities offer similar programs. It is important to recognise that these programs are making significant steps in the right direction. Last year, there were 95 recorded suicides amongst university students in the UK, and any reduction in the suicide rate at all should be commended. 

Despite this, the number of students reporting mental illnesses continued to rise along with the national dependence on antidepressants. Data revealed by the NHS shows that the number of antidepressants prescribed to 18-24 year olds in the UK in 2017 was at an all-time high. Is this indicative of a the medical field relying too heavily on a prescriptive culture, or is it a testament to the de-stigmatisation of mental health issues? Someone struggling with their mental health would be far more likely to open up and seek help if they know they are not alone or different. With the increased media attention and initiatives such as #BellLetsTalk, the culture surrounding mental health is becoming progressively inclusive and understood. 

As the world surrounding mental health adapts significantly year-to-year, however, universities must adapt simultaneously to keep up with the progress. This is no easy task, as changes to the organisational structure of wellbeing at universities require bureaucratic navigation and personnel shuffling, but the task at hand is of the utmost importance. In the continuously adapting process of addressing mental wellbeing on campus, one underutilised area of focus is a construction of a simple check-in system for students. After the mental wellbeing programs are introduced to students in their first week on campus, the burden then lies on them to reach out. So, if mental health issues do arise with a student, they must seek out these university services and find the help they need. The most significant problem with this structure is the nature of mental illnesses, which can be crippling and utterly isolating. At a time when one feels most alone, finding the strength to act is often incredibly difficult. 

As a means of responding to this, perhaps universities could offer a system where the reachout lies in the hands of the institution. An anonymous “how are you doing?” Google form sent out to university emails periodically, with links to the university’s support services may be all it takes to make a student in the throes of internal struggle feel like they are not alone, that they are part of an institution that genuinely supports and cares about them. No perfect system exists to combat this issue, and no broad net can be cast with the expectation of catching and addressing all mental health issues; however, universities have started to walk in the right direction toward creating a better system. An increasing initiative towards a more supportive system is all that could be asked of universities. A better system may be one where those in charge seek out those who are struggling, rather than hoping they conquer their anxiety and the stigma surrounding their illness enough to reach out before it is too late.

Image: Hamline University via Wikimedia Commons

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