Mental health: it’s something all of us have, and an issue one in four of us will fall foul of every single year. Awareness and understanding of these issues is only on the rise. Sadly though, it seems that awareness is yet to turn into any meaningful action. In terms of funding or improved treatment, only 55 percent of NHS mental health trusts have increased their budgets since 2012. In fact, mental health only accounts for 13 percent of the NHS total budget, despite the inescapable fact that 28 percent of burden placed on the health service is in some way related to mental illness.
This is no less the case at our universities. A recent Freedom of Information request revealed how much a number of our institutions – including those in the prestigious Russell Group – spend on mental health services for each student annually. Of the 40 institutions surveyed, one huge disparity is apparent: Oxford tops the table, with £48.25 per head, while Cambridge comes in as a close second at £40.48. The University of Central Lancashire, meanwhile, spends a pitiful £4.64, while my own university, Warwick, ranked shamefully low in 33rd place, its expenditure of £11.92 per student annually being the worst performing in the Russell Group universities listed.
Oxbridge topping the table is hardly a surprise: not only are their deep pockets brimming with change to set aside for health services, they are also two of the most high-pressured institutions in the world. That both have recognised the value of counselling services is telling. If only other universities would follow suit.
Universities, by their nature, have always been places where mental strength is tested to its limits. But nowadays, in the competitive job market graduates find themselves entering into, getting a good degree simply isn’t enough. Students are expected to get top-class marks from the best possible institution they can, alongside gaining as much work experience as they can, all whilst demonstrating they are well-rounded through participation in clubs and societies. Despite the common portrayal of our generation's lively night-time antics, universities are not all fun and games: they are environments in which mental illness often festers undetected.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a recent survey by the NUS found that 78 percent of students claimed to have suffered from poor mental health during their time at university. While the scale of the NUS's survey was small, another, conducted by the student publication The Tab, found that that 42 percent of 12,000 students surveyed had suffered from mental health issues. But perhaps most concerning is the number of students who indicated that they had experienced suicidal thoughts during their studies. That a third could feel this way is a sure-sign that an endemic problem has taken root in our places of education.
At the time of the NUS’s survey results, Paul Blomfield, the MP for Sheffield Central and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on students, told the Guardian: “Our colleges and universities should be places of educational and personal development, where students feel supported. But these findings show us that significant numbers of students are suffering with mental health problems, many of them silently. These survey results are a wake-up call to all of us concerned with student welfare.”
But for all the talk, a year on, what has changed? Whilst individual university spending on mental health has increased by 36 percent, the money spent nationally per student has fallen from £415 to £344. The demand for mental health services is simply rising faster than universities are willing to invest; the use of counselling services by students has risen 50 percent in the last five years, but expenditure on the services has simply not been matched.
The problem of demand has been highlighted by the head of UCL’s student mental health provision, Catherine McAteer, who said in September: “We have 39,000 students, soon to go up to over 40,000. There are 13 clinicians in my team. The reality is 13 people cannot meet that kind of demand.”
This isn’t about wrapping millennials in cotton wool and protecting them from the outside world, this is about using universities – places of education and personal development – to start to prepare people for common problems that can manifest at any point during our lives. By taking the steps now to instil a culture that says mental health is valid and important, it will slowly start to trickle down into wider society. And the way to make that impact most clear is by properly investing in counselling and other services - beginning with universities.