Healthy University Champions
Like most of my colleagues, I was until recently unaware of the changes the University of Essex is planning to make to its provision of support for students suffering from mental illness. In general, we hear about such changes only once they are a fait accompli, and are told that it is too late to do anything about them. If we pick up rumours earlier in the process, we are told that it is too early: the idea is still just an idea, still at the ‘consultation’ stage, nothing has been decided yet. Even now, after the story has hit the national press, I have so far been unable to get a full and clear account of the planned changes from university administrators.
The outlines, however, are plain enough. As part of a ‘sector-wide shift towards seeing wellness as part of a much broader and more complex matter than simply mental health’, the university’s qualified counsellors will be replaced by a team of ‘well-being assessors’, who will be required only to have two A-levels and some relevant experience. Counselling will be provided through ‘partnership arrangements’ with an as-yet-unnamed outside body (mental health support for staff is already provided through an arrangement with Validium, a company which promises ‘solutions that quantifiably increase the value of people to the business’). There will also be a shift towards the use of online materials in place of face-to-face therapy. All of this against a background of deteriorating mental health, among students and staff alike, and soaring demand for support services.
Academics, meanwhile, already struggling to support a growing number of students with unmet mental health needs, are being asked to volunteer as ‘Healthy University Champions’, which will involve sacrificing any remaining lunch breaks we have in order to ‘communicate activities’, attend ‘events’, and provide 'reviews on said activities to assist with the implementation of further ideas and so on’. The ‘Healthy University Sub-Strategy’ aims to promote ‘a positive concept of health and well-being for staff and students’. Because well-being is ‘complex’, baskets of fruit are to be placed in offices, and we are all free to enjoy the ‘plumbed-in water’ available across the Colchester campus. At Southend, ‘motivational stickers’ will power staff and students up the stairs.
I wonder if the people responsible for these initiatives have any idea how offensive they are. That the university presents the cutting and outsourcing of counselling services as an ‘expansion’ of support suggests a very low estimation of our critical faculties. Believe it or not, I have already partaken of the plumbed-in water generously provided by my employer. I have even, on occasion, walked around a tree. Both were very good for my physical and mental health, as is the air my colleagues and I are able to breathe free of charge. I’m sure we will appreciate the fruit baskets too, though perhaps not as much as we would appreciate an end to the real-terms pay cuts we have seen over the last decade (the difference would pay for a lot of bananas).
It may look as if I'm mixing up two separate issues here: the ‘restructuring’ of mental health support for students, and the introduction of insulting gimmicks to improve the well-being of staff whose pay and conditions continue to be eroded. But the issues are not separate at all. To reverse one of the slogans used during the recent nationwide strike by lecturers, students’ learning conditions are our working conditions. Removing what was already an inadequately resourced system of support for students as demand for services rises, leaving overstretched academics to pick up the pieces while lecturing us about diet and exercise, will deal a further blow to the ‘wellness’ of both staff and students.
For all the rhetoric about the ‘complexity’ of mental health, the university’s approach only really makes sense on the assumption that it is all very simple – a matter of ‘positive’ thinking and fresh fruit. For all the talk of ‘raising awareness’ and ‘challenging stigma’, this approach obscures the nature and causes of mental illness while pushing responsibility for it onto the sufferer. When a university webpage tells students that ‘everyone has mental health – sometimes good, sometimes not so good’, that is on one level true (and obvious), but in a material context in which mental illness is not taken seriously, it's trivialising. Saying that ‘everyone has mental health’ doesn't help someone who is suicidal, or hears voices, or has been raped.
Nobody is denying that a better diet and more exercise can help with mental health problems. But the nature of mental illnesses such as depression can make it difficult or impossible to take the apparently simple steps prescribed. The environment of the contemporary university, too, leaves little time or space for the regimes of self-maintenance that are increasingly necessary in order to survive it.
Mental illness among students is often connected with or compounded by financial worries, family trauma, bereavement, sexual assault and other factors. The university cannot solve all of these problems, but it can do two things. It can provide well-qualified, well-resourced staff for students to talk to when they need to. And if it is really interested in creating a healthy environment, it can look at ways to reduce the financial pressure on students, instead of cutting bursaries to the bone while hiking rents. As mentally ill people are continually told, it is never too late to change direction.