For years, topics surrounding mental health, depression, and suicide have been taboo in both entertainment and dining-table conversation. This stands in contrast to how seemingly willing public institutions are to pledge their support to ending the chronic lack of resources directed towards mental health. Every government promises more funding and every university promises that they are the one with the tools to help prospective students. Part of the reason for this divide is that it is far easier to have the resources available (although this is not always achieved), than to show people that reaching out is neither weak, or something to be ashamed of.
Focusing purely on our university community, four recent student deaths in 10 months prompted action in favour of increased mental health funding and a re-structuring of the support system. This is still ongoing because of a lack of clarity from the university and the Student Union with regards to how the new budget of £1.4m will be spent, and whether or not the university actually takes responsibility for the mental health of its students.
Perhaps two of the most basic requirements that the university needs to fulfil are admitting both that they have a true responsibility to the health of students, and also that they have been falling short in this regard. In secondary education, the idea of a ‘duty of care’ is far simpler. In 2018, one of Scotland’s top private schools was sued for failing to prevent a campaign of cyber and physical bullying against a former student. The school owed the student protection, failed, and faced the consequences.
Comparatively, it seems far easier for a university to deny their responsibility to students. After all, we are adults now, developing self-reliance is a key part of growing up. Except, there is no guide that works for everyone on how to become a functioning, healthy person. For many, no experience serves as a benchmark to judge university by. I spent my whole life in a town in Kent, surrounded by largely the same people, and grew used to having this tight support network, including teachers at school who all knew me by name and reputation. Now, I am one of thousands in a wider community, living hours away from my family and must rely purely on myself for meeting deadlines and making friends. It would be unrealistic to expect anyone, especially those with existing mental health conditions, to adjust to this simply because they have now turned 18.
We should never have reached this point as a community. My greatest disappointment with the university is that it is seemingly the negative publicity generated by the deaths that led to the increased funding and support for mental health. They should have started listening long before this. They should have listened to reports of waiting lists that go on for months, to students whose conditions aren’t covered by existing councillors, and to incoming first-years, worried about the years ahead. I truly hope that even if the university cannot admit fault, it can learn from tragedy and truly fulfil the duty of care that we are owed.
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