The importance of student mental health
The mental health of UK students has been top of the news agenda for the last couple of months. After troubling statistics, including ten suicides at the University of Bristol since October 2016, the Universities Minister Sam Gyimah set out plans for new working groups and emergency contacts in the case of a mental health crisis, as the BBC's World at One featured a deeply moving interview with a mother who had lost her daughter.
Last year, an email from a University of Cambridge Director of Studies, containing the line 'People who just TAKE the course, but enjoy their social life, can easily survive in many subjects, but not in this one', brought the spotlight onto our alma mater and investigations followed into whether the academic pressure in the institution is coherent with good mental health.
The sentiment and the language used in that email should be challenged, however the stresses of essay deadlines and examinations are similar to other tasks in the working world, so perhaps it is not only the academic workload that should make student mental health a priority. Instead, I would suggest that it is more the change of scene, the process of self-discovery and the development of independence that make it inevitable that difficult thoughts, anxieties and realisations will occur in the student brain and that this should, to a certain extent, be encouraged.
For many, university will be the first place where there is space to look back on the environment in which one has spent the last eighteen years. It is an understatement to say that no home life is perfect and that lots of undergraduates will have experienced some sort of childhood trauma, so in many ways, profound reflection at this stage should be supported, rather than seen as a health issue at all. If universities decide that providing good mental health, as well as teaching information and skills, is part of higher education, their graduates will surely be better placed to succeed.
My experience at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where I met the other Song Cyclists, was pretty typical of universities across the UK. I was aware that the contact details for mental health services, both in and out of college, were available on the library notice boards and that there was a welfare officer in the student union committee. However, these measures never seemed to reach students in the fast pace of lectures, rehearsals and sports fixtures, so if universities are really going to help their students to develop, mental health needs to be something not just for a few well-meaning volunteers, but for all staff, including academic tutors.
A charity with the expertise of Mind and campaigns like Heads Together and #oktosay can train tutors and supervisors how to, without nannying or mollycoddling, take an interest in and read the indicators of the mental well-being of their students. This is not to suggest that professors should provide counselling, but that they should feel comfortable and encouraged to initiate the conversation with their students, before perhaps referring them on to Mind and other professional organisations. Essays do not have to be fewer or exams made easier if we implore institutions to give staff training in how to look out for signs of mental health issues. This alert and caring attitude is not patronising, weak or unrealistic and if it is thought to be beyond the call of duty, that should be rigorously questioned when better mental health is of such benefit to us all.
Undergraduates are not only managing an academic workload but also getting to grips with who they are, what they think and how they feel. If universities can provide across-the-board support for mental health, whether from academic tutors, student welfare teams or professional counsellors, surely their young people will then have the best chance of graduating feeling settled, balanced and ready to make a positive impact on the world.