On World Mental Health Day 2016: Why student mental health and wellbeing must be a top priority

This post contains mentions of suicide and self-harm.

Recently, it was said to me “student mental health will only be prioritised as an issue once a student takes their own life”.

The irony in this statement is that this is already occurring. Nationally, student suicide is at its highest since 2007, with Sheffield being no exception to this trend. Whilst the rates of student suicide do not show students to be a particularly at risk group compared to other social groups, the significant rise in reports of suicidal thoughts, attempted suicides and self-harm must be factored into consideration. Statistics are coming out of our ears on the sky-high rates of students and young people reporting difficulties with their mental health, with the NUS showing 78% of students experienced issues in the last year.

On a national scale, it is certainly the case that mental health has become somewhat of a ‘buzzword’, flying across the pages of the Guardian and the like with high frequency.The linguistics of mental health and the issues within it are eternally argued over by people on all sides. Are people experiencing, suffering or affected by mental health issues, episodes, experiences, conditions or illnesses? Do we think mental illness is on the rise, or are people just reporting more? Are our students self-diagnosing themselves with issues they don’t have? Is this generation less resilient than previous ones, who would pick themselves up and go on? Are we less equipped to cope with life’s challenges, and more dependent on those around us? Do we expect more support now than we actually need?

In reality, it may not necessarily be your beliefs themselves but more the reaction that you justify with such beliefs that is the crucial part of this debate. I personally disagree with many of the arguments I’ve heard across the years, but that doesn’t matter so much as the outcomes caused by them. And, as a whole, no matter what you believe, the fundamental truth that students are concerned for their mental health means we absolutely must prioritise the issue.

I use the language of prioritisation because, at present, I simply do not believe that mental health and wellbeing is the prioritised enough. The circumstances through which your average 18-year-old undergraduate will arrive at university are now, arguably, fundamentally conducive to poor mental health and wellbeing. The debate around tuition fees may be an exhausting one, but it is one we cannot ignore as a game-changer in the world of student wellbeing. I don’t refer to rises in fees as simply the idea that ‘now student debt has tripled that means mental health is bad’. Such an argument is far too simplistic and completely ignores the actual and valid impact of what paying these fees means to your standard undergraduate 18-year-old. It means that they have now arrived at university not for an education, but to buy their degree as a commodity that they will use to advance themselves along the conveyor-belt that society in the UK has become.

The reasons why this reflects a lack of prioritisation of student wellbeing are many. It fundamentally alters the amount of pressure on an individual to succeed during their time at university. If they don’t exit the conveyor-belt having ticked the boxes of first class degree, membership of at least five societies and sports clubs, weekly club nights, volunteering on the side, part-time job, internships during the summer, friends for life, graduate job in central London lined up, why did they even enter it?

With this context in mind, it feels as if no one is prioritising the mental health and wellbeing of our students, including the students themselves. With all those tickboxes to get through, who has time for sleep, a good meal, healthy lifestyle and crucial self-care? All of these things may feel completely secondary, and yet without them, we become significantly more vulnerable to mental ill-health.

It is for all these reasons that mental health and wellbeing will form the central focus and ultimate priority of my year as your Welfare Officer. I aim to shift the mindset around mental health and wellbeing, and hope to encourage the university, the SU and students themselves to prioritise it. Calls for more funding to support services and better and more diverse forms of support are extremely important and must continue. However, the roots of the issue run deeper into our entire attitude towards what it is to be a student, and what we expect of our students. Until we attempt to relieve these pressures and allow students to be humans, prioritising their mental health and wellbeing as a result, we will never truly address the issue.

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