Al Thomas analyses the current state of the University’s mental health services and how issues with funding and the capacity of those needing help are leaving many people in need on a long, unbearable waiting list.
Mental health services have been at a constant stretch across UK universities for years now. Whilst it has slowly started to become more normalised and acceptable to talk about mental health, the services needed to support those who need help have become scarcer.
A mixture of austerity cuts to mental health services provided by the NHS and a surge in those who are actively trying to seek help means that an individual, like myself, will be told to wait three months before they will be able to receive counselling services through the NHS or at Glasgow University. It is a similar tale across UK universities, as services struggle to cope.
When I started university last year I feared that I would at some point have to use the mental health services. I have a long history of depression and anxiety dating back to when I was an adolescent. I was also well aware of how prevalent mental health issues are at university. As my Dad told me, at the university where he teaches, 60% of students suffer from mental health problems during their university career.
Students really are feeling the pressure. Fees of £9,250 a year for us non-Scots, plus our student loans or SAAS for living expenses means many of us we will be walking away from university with debts of over £50,000. For me, the pressure of debt was not what really got to me. I am lucky enough to come from a family who can support me financially; but for many of my friends, paying the rent at the end of every month can be a real struggle. Top that off with all the other normal pressures of university life - deadlines, friendship and relationship issues, poor housing conditions and being a long way from home - and it is no wonder that university is a perfect melting pot for mental health issues.
After a few months at university last year, I really began to struggle. I would sit in my rather dingy room in Murano and not be able to leave because my anxiety was too severe. The thought of going to lectures overwhelmed me, a panic attack could quickly ensue if I attempted to actually go and do the thing I was at university to do. Once I had begun missing lectures it felt impossible to catch up, so I would miss more and more.
When I finally went and sought help I initially went to my local GP. He was chatty and funny, but also starkly truthful. He could offer me medication or I could wait three months to see a counsellor. Medication is something I have always avoided, but a three-month waiting list seemed unbearable. I opted to start taking beta-blockers and a referral to the mental health services at university. I was slightly shocked as when I was a child I only had to wait a few weeks to receive counselling. Now, as an adult, your mental health is your own responsibility and if you cannot cope there is not a huge amount of help you can receive quickly.
I applied to the mental health services in November, they got back to me during the Christmas holidays to organise my consultation. After my consultation in January, I waited and waited until finally, on the day I was going into my first exam in April, I received an email: “Our records show that you had an assessment and were put onto the waiting list […] please reply to us if you still want to use our services.” Reading further on, “unfortunately, this does not guarantee you will be starting sessions within the next few weeks.” I decided, in the end, it was not worth even replying. By the time they would get back to me I would probably be back at home in Oxford for the summer.
I am sure those of you who are able to access the mental health services find them helpful; however, the fact that I was not able to – at a time when I really needed to – reflects very badly on the service. I was lucky to have a great group of friends around me and a very supportive family, but I wonder what happens to those who are much more isolated, especially international students attending the university.
Underfunding is a very real issue; the University is perfectly aware of the issues surrounding mental health and the number of those who seek help for it. I hope that the extra funding from the money withheld from staff who took part in the strikes last year goes to good use and helps ease some pressure.
The story surrounding the disability services are very different. I have friends who have used them with great success. Their needs are immediately met (which is crucial for a university that wants to be inclusive and accessible for all). However, I do feel that funding for mental health services needs to be in chime with that of the disability services because, at the end of the day, a mental health problem can be every bit as debilitating as a physical disability.