Universities need a mental health revolution | Danny Bowman

Think back to that midsummer’s day in July, when, on the steps of 10 Downing Street, Theresa May gave her inaugural address to the British people as their new Prime Minister. Promising to make the country one that “works for everyone”, her speech contained one sentence that signified that perhaps, at long last, the issue of mental health might seriously be recognised as one that must be taken seriously for a country to be crafted in this mould. Her words: “If you suffer from mental health problems, there is not enough help to hand.” To me, this was something of an understatement, which failed to recognise the truly grim reality many people suffering from mental illness find themselves in. If people struggling with mental health issues don’t get the correct, compassionate support, then their prospects are bleak. Homelessness, unemployment, even prison are the horizon for many – and in the worst cases, their story will be one they choose to end themselves through suicide. In an age when our Conservative government speaks so readily and with such passion about improving life chances for everyone, it is surely time we finally addressed mental health, and the standards of care for it in our country.

The importance of mental-health care has never been more publically topical. With an ever-increasing number of people bravely speaking out about their experiences of mental illness, the longstanding stigma is slowly but surely waning. This has not, however, been matched by an increase in provision of services, and we still see many sufferers not receiving the help they need, and ultimately being failed by the system when they need it most.

Care for mental-health disorders plays a vitally important role in helping people get on in life: it should be at the forefront of Theresa Mays “country that works for everyone”, and the stability that sound mental health affords should propel it to prominence in every conservative’s mind. This is why it is disappointing to hear this week that Jeremy Hunt has failed to meet commitments on mental-health spending.

One of the most important stages of many young people’s development is university. Mental health care should be visible and readily available on campus – and yet, despite strides being made, universities are still a long way from providing a satisfactory level of on-campus assistance.

It’s a brand new university year. Freshers will start their university journey by infusing their new-found independence with copious amounts of alcohol, second-years will be learning from – whilst simultaneously trying to forget – their mistakes of a year ago, and finalists will view both with a disdainful pity that’s scorned by the postgraduate students hauling themselves to local bars and clubs.

Whatever year of university they’re in, however, the experiences of many students during this final stage in their educational journey should be some of the most formative of their adult lives. In most cases, students contend with the constant poverty, academic demands and social scrutiny with a cheery resignation – but these pressures, combined with the emotionally complex task of transitioning to adulthood, should not be underestimated in their potential to impact upon students’ mental health.

I have heard too many desperately sad stories of students suffering from depressive, anxiety  and body-image disorders whilst studying at university – and whilst these stories are every bit as diverse as one would imagine, they were united in the message that emerged: there was not enough support on campus.

Office of National Statistics figures for England and Wales showed a dramatic rise in student suicides in 2014, with 130 recorded for students aged 18 and above. The ONS also found that at least half of ambulance call-outs to university campuses in England and Wales where linked to a mental health crisis, related to self-harm or suicide attempt(s). A silent crisis is unfolding in universities in England and Wales.

It is for this reason I believe it to be of utmost importance that all universities in our country place mental-health support at the heart of campus life. This would not only contribute to the normalisation of such issues in our educational institutions, helping to finally condemn to history a stigma that has long outstayed its welcome, but would inevitably create a revolutionary support network on our university campuses. Providing the much needed compassionate care that some students desperately need, this could – and would – save lives. Students can play a huge part in this approach by learning mental-health first aid – or just by being there for a friend in their moment of need.

Personally, it seems clear that mental-health services fit for the twenty-first century and the much-needed additional support on our university campuses would be implemented with significantly more alacrity if our Conservative government established a new cabinet position of Minister for Mental Health. This would allow a dedicated MP to comprehensively examine the question of what needs to be done to fix the inequalities faced by sufferers of mental ill health that permeate the very systems instituted to help them, and would stop this issue being palmed off by government departments who wish to avoid dealing with it. However, I will leave that for you to decide – perhaps at your next port and policy…

Danny Bowman is a mental health campaigner.

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