Mental health: actions not words

By Emily Smith

Across the UK, University ‘non-continuation’ due to mental health issues has increased threefold since 2009, according to data recently made available by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Though it remains essential to avoid being reductive – it must be remembered that each experience of mental health (or problem thereof) is unique. Nevertheless, these trends highlight worrying developments within higher education (as well as within wider society) which we, as students, voters, and politically involved citizens, must actively work to combat.

The de-stigmatisation of mental illness has become somewhat of a media fad. From the Royal Family to Selena Gomez, Lady Gaga to Ruby Wax, a diverse range of celebrities have shared their equally varied experiences – creating a polyphonic symphony, seemingly advocating acceptance.  This is admirable trend irrefutably is rooted in good intentions. Yet it has reduced the concept of ‘awareness’ to nothing more than a buzzword; such awareness has done little to promote action. This disjunction between thought and action can be seen throughout society, not solely within higher education.

The NHS, though admittedly troubled at the best of times, is particularly notorious for its deficiencies in mental health care. The reporting of these failures illustrates the positive impact of attitude changes – the very fact that mental health can be reported on so frankly, and with the expectation that its under-representation will be responded to with shock and disdain, demonstrates the shifts in the conceptualisation of mental health.

However, it also illustrates how such attitude changes do not reflect, nor necessarily bring about, equally positive actions in governmental policy.  Simply put, the adjusting response of the public towards mental health issues has not been matched by the response in Parliament, nor within the societal structures which it shapes.  Similarly, the increasing awareness (and more importantly, acceptance) of mental health issues has had little actual effect upon University provisions.  This problem is partly self-perpetuating – the more comfortable people are with discussing potential issues, the more people will wish to seek help – but nevertheless, the deficiency in services is pronounced.

Six months sat upon a waiting list is far from unheard of. The analogy of mental illness to a broken bone, though undoubtedly trite, springs to mind; imagine waiting sixth months for a bone to be set.  By the time treatment is accessed, the bone would have reconfigured itself in entirely the wrong place – causing damage which, if not irreversible, is much harder to mend than it would have been at its initial presentation.

Mental health issues are much akin to this; patterns of thought and behaviour become entrenched without treatment, and as such when an issue is left it actively grows more severe. When this lack of treatment is combined with an academic atmosphere such as Durham’s – inherently competitive, stressful, and demanding – it is little wonder that mental health issues find the perfect conditions to flourish. Though student-led services such as Nightline and college Welfare teams fulfil a crucial role, it is essential to remember that they are not professionals.

Another analogy: your next door neighbour may be a skilled carpenter, but that doesn’t automatically qualify him to perform surgery.  Durham University prides itself on having one of the lowest dropout rates. Whether this is due to the collegiate system, resources such as Nightline, academic prestige, or simply luck, is up for dispute.

However, what is certain is that this reputation cannot, and will not, sustain itself. Intervention is necessary in order to maintain this enviable statistic; a greater focus is needed on improving the quality and accessibility of mental health facilities. Awareness may have positive implications, but to cause real change we must use all our political abilities – not just voting, but also at the local area and within the University itself – in order to encourage real improvements in mental health provisions.

Photograph: Kevin Simmons via Flickr and Creative Commons

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