A Duty Of Care: A Mental Health Epidemic At UK Universities

Trigger Warning: This article contains references to suicidal thoughts. If you are affected by any of the issues mentioned please contact a mental health support line.

In November 2018, I sat in the harsh light of a university counselling office and told the lady sitting opposite me, through tears, that I was thinking about ending my life. Gripping my mum’s hand, I explained that my depressive and anxious thoughts had become overwhelming and that I wasn’t sure if I could go on. The lady sitting opposite me was kind and understanding and she advised that I make an emergency appointment with a GP. Driving to the GP, my mum turned to me and said: “I can’t believe it’s taken this long.”

Six weeks earlier, I had tried repeatedly to get in touch with the university in an attempt to mitigate the effects of what I could sense was about to be an episode of depression and anxiety. Far from early intervention, I was instead passed from email address to email address, from person to person, from office to office.

The pointless bureaucracy was confusing and unfair – I could barely leave my house, let alone find the strength to make appointments and show up to them. I found it difficult to cope at university for a number of reasons; chemical and circumstantial.

My struggle was compounded again and again by the failure of university institutions to provide information and support surrounding mental illness. I grew tired of repeating my story – an incredibly personal struggle – over and over to complete strangers just to get them to take notice of me. I felt I was constantly being made to justify my inability to get out of bed in the morning.

Eventually, I got in touch with the welfare team at my college. I firmly believe I owe about 40% of my degree to them – it took just one person telling me she would help me, look after me, and advocate for me for things to completely change. My college helped me to apply for extensions and counselling support. I was given a grace period and went home for a month to recover.

I began to feel like living again.

That is not to say, however, that Durham University miraculously began to care. By the time of my first counselling appointment, I had waited over two months and paid £50 for a doctor’s letter which explained that I needed to take time away from my studies. I was given a three-day extension on just one of three essays, even though I had not been to university for over a month. I received an email from my department, demanding that I make an appointment as soon as possible to discuss what was going on. I had tried in vain to contact them before I was in an actual crisis – instead, they contacted me after the fact with an email that felt both impersonal and cruel.

It had taken a threat to my life for my university to listen to me.

I was only eligible for 6 free counselling sessions. This was enough when accompanied by anti-depressants and a really great support network. Whilst I sat waiting for my appointments, I saw students coming out of their final sessions looking lost and distressed. What happens when you cannot afford the 7th session – a session that might save your life? I began to think, too, about what happened to the students who could not afford to pay the £50 fee for a doctor’s letter. What happened to the students whose families and friends were not advocating for them? What happened to the students who had no-one to get them out of bed and drive them to these incredibly difficult and draining meetings? Would these people simply slip through the net?

This seems to be a pattern. Molly underwent double jaw surgery, of which Durham University was aware, and upon her return to university she was not contacted about her welfare. Molly went on to suffer from PTSD, depression and anxiety. She was encouraged by friends to speak to her college principal – an experience which she found ‘unhelpful’ – and where she received vague advice about the possibility of accessing counselling. Molly summed it up, saying she ‘thinks someone should have checked in’.

Lauren switched universities after insufficient support at a Leeds University. When she told them she was struggling, they encouraged her to drop out, insisting that her mental health would make it too difficult for her to continue her studies. She has since switched to a smaller university, where the welfare policy is much more supportive and accessible; ‘I get checked in on every year and they gave me extra counselling whenever I needed it.’ She added, ‘Big universities don’t always put the right amount of funding into their mental health teams.’ This is crucial. There simply does not seem to be the will to properly fund and invest in mental health strategy – whether it be early intervention or long-term support. Lauren’s experience, as well as mine, shows how huge institutions allow students to fall through the cracks, where smaller universities or collegiate initiatives offer more personal and tailored support.

Holly spoke about how, during her time at Newcastle University, she was offered ‘the bare minimum’ – 8 sessions of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and little else besides that– she added that this was ‘absolutely not enough’. Often CBT is used as a one-size-fits-all cure – and though it can be great for some, I certainly wouldn’t have responded to this kind of self-help strategy because I was struggling to keep myself alive.

Student nurses and midwives are calling for more support, too. Daisy is a third-year student midwife at Salford and feels she is ‘almost at breaking point’ due to a lack of proper support from a university that expects them to simply ‘continue as normal’, working gruelling shifts for free in the midst of a global pandemic.  

There is, then, overwhelming evidence to suggest we have a problem here. Yet despite the number of students accessing mental health services increasing five-fold since 2006, and male suicide rates rising to 84 per week, my university would simply bring in llamas to stroke every two months, advertise yoga in the SU, and call this a sufficient welfare policy.

In 2017 alone, six student suicides in Bristol caused national concern, alerting the public to a mental health crisis in universities. Last year, The Guardian reported that 42.8% of students often or always felt anxious and a third said they experienced loneliness whilst living at university. Half of the students surveyed reported thoughts of self-harm. In the last two months alone, 8 students across the UK have died. This week, we heard the news that Lily Arkwright, a student at Cardiff University, had taken her own life last month during a visit home.

The implications are clear: universities have a duty of care, and they are not delivering. This is a national epidemic and things need to change.

Words by Eleanore Taylor

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