So today is University Mental Health Day, but what does that mean in a higher education culture where we already know that mental health is under-discussed within senior management conversations, under resourced across campuses and stigmatised in many of our everyday situations?
What it means, to me, is that we should capitalise on this day as the start of a new conversation with someone, anyone, who hasn’t previously thought on this topic. That doesn’t mean, and should never mean, that we consider mental health for only one day a year. It also doesn’t mean that we should consider mental health only in a negative light. In my role as FXU President Student Experience, I have seen students who have had problems with their mental health, and the inability of the University to respond to them. I stress that this is not the fault of the Universities, but is symptomatic of a society that does not equate mental health problems with physical health problems.
As such, I firmly believe that mental health needs to be thought of in the same light as to how we think of physical health, a spectrum of health where we are all regularly at different points on that spectrum. All of us could have good mental health one day and poor mental health the next, which is natural and not problematic in itself. By accepting that people, particularly staff and students, can play a pivotal role in breaking everyday stigmas around mental health, it should become acceptable to miss out on an event with friends because you’re having a poor mental health day and indeed it can become the norm for us as friends to know what to do in this situation, how to feel confident enough to help. It can become acceptable to miss a club training session because you’re not mentally well enough to play, just as we readily accept that an injury can mean you’re not physically well enough to play. Our clubs and societies do fantastic work in making their spaces as inclusive as possible, and I believe they often lead the way in broadening the scope of student conversations around mental health. It can become an expectation that lecturers are ready and trained to handle fluctuating student mental health, because fluctuating mental health shouldn’t still be being seen as ‘abnormal’ or ‘awkward’. Better understanding and training is crucial in enabling students to better support each other, which is why BUCS have produced these resources to support mental health in sport: http://www.bucs.org.uk/athlete.asp?section=18795§ionTitle=Mental+Health+Resources.
It’s all very well me talking about the classic ‘removal of stigmas’ and ensuring this isn’t only a day long conversation, as whilst those are conversations that absolutely need to be had, there’s so much more to be done. There have been several national reports recently that have concluded that all Universities need to seriously review the funding they allocate toward student wellbeing, particularly counselling services. We have a unique situation here with two Universities being invested into joint services; and there has been some reassuring steps taken recently that genuinely show both Falmouth University and the University of Exeter are committed to working with us, and therefore with students, in constantly reviewing and further developing the support they offer to students, ensuring it is at a level that supports the needs of students. Exeter have launched a wellbeing review, in consultation with your FXU Presidents, that will be a sharp review to see how they can further improve the University’s wellbeing provision, including improving mental health services across all University campuses. The Vice Chancellor of Falmouth put herself down as our main point of contact for our student-formed Top Ten Priority ‘Mental Health, Wellbeing and DSA’ as she agreed it was not just a priority, but of the utmost importance, and regularly meets with the FXU President Community and Welfare to ensure this priority continues to progress. Feedback on the lack of reading week is being delivered and discussed as I type and work is being undertaken to further demonstrate the negative impact that a lack of this week can have on student mental health.
Wider than just our two Universities is a different conversation, the regional and national landscape for mental health provision is less than picturesque, with similar problems across the board. We have vastly increased your national voice this year, from lobbying for the passing of the Istanbul Convention to feeding into the BUCS (British Universities and Colleges Sport) resources in breaking down barriers to sport – steps like these will never be the cure for the stigmatization of poor mental health, but they all feed into the conversation somehow in improving the opportunities and support for students. We believe a national voice is crucial in fighting for better mental health for students, and only by working with the likes of NUS (National Union of Students) and BUCS can we achieve this.
Is my writing this piece going to change the overarching attitude towards student mental health? No, but hopefully you joining us in really talking about all forms of mental health could lead to change; how we can support you to more regularly consider your own mental health, and that of your peers, should always be a priority for Universities and Students’ Unions. FXU will continue to advocate for improved provision of mental health services whilst you study in Cornwall, at every level and at all opportunities possible, not just on University Mental Health Day but all year round. We can make a difference. Continuing this conversation is crucial to that, and our massive thanks goes to students who we know already play a crucial role in supporting the mental health of all students. This does not stop here.
For mental health support, please contact Student Services at firstname.lastname@example.org, and check out the following websites: https://www.b-eat.co.uk/, http://www.studentminds.org.uk/, http://www.mind.org.uk/.