What happened at the Liber8 mental health campaign day?

Thursday 20-04-2017 - 10:54

A few weeks ago we held another Liber8 campaign day, this time focusing on mental health. Students and officers came from across the UK to discuss how thw issues was affecting students on their campus, what  they were working on, and what they wanted to see from NUS.


After a number of presentations with speakers including current counsellors, mental health practitioners, and sector experts, we had a wide-ranging discussion about what NUS should recommend to universities on mental health, which will culminate in a report published in a few weeks’ time.

So what did we learn?

1. We are at a crossroads in terms of mental health services

Recent years have seen a rising demand among students for access to university and NHS mental health services. That demand is putting more and more pressure on universities, and coupled with increased student numbers, and more revenue being diverted towards marketing, there is a clear strain on those services.

This is an opportunity for student unions. If we can make a clear case that students require more support and campaign with a united voice for that provision, we could see a major breakthrough in the funding of our services, and also in developing a set of other policies that complement a well-funded service, to truly put mental health at the heart of the educational experience.

But it is also a threat. There are those in the sector, and those in universities, who would rather try and square the circle of rising demand and no extra funding, than accept that more students, a tougher workload (and that’s before we’ve introduced two-year fast-track degrees) mean that service funding should increase to match that. They believe that rising demand and growing pressure on services must be met within existing budgets, in existing frameworks.

The risk is that we go from a situation where quality services lack resource, to another situation where they are simply replaced by less qualified, or downgraded, or outsourced but ultimately cheaper alternatives.

There is no quick fix when it comes to mental health. We shouldn’t accept one.

2. The causes of poor mental health are complex - but debt and finance is a major part of that

We heard from NUS consultant James Robertson about research into student debt and mental health, and the relationship between the two. Research by sociologists has shown that high tuition fees and debt has changed the way we see education, and our behaviour. As students are now ‘purchasing’ education in a consumer model, we increasingly see our degrees as a financial investment, and with the obligations to pay back our debt in future. That responsibility to pay our debts encourages a mode of thinking where students are forced to compete against one another for better grades and then better-paid jobs - and unsurprisingly this doesn’t make us very happy.

In NUS’ research into mental health in 2015, almost half of students said that their mental health difficulties were driven by financial worries. Which students haven’t worried about a rent payment, or their bills, or run out of money, or been forced to use a payday loan? Not many, it would seem. 

This is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon, and requires us to tackle the causes of poor mental health in students - including student finance and debt - rather than just demand more provision.

3. The issue is not only funding of services

We then heard from both Jeremy Christey, of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and Poppy Brown, who wrote the Higher Education Policy Institute’s report on mental health, The Invisible Problem. They both spoke about potential policies that student unions can implement in order to ensure that services function for the students who need them. In particular, Poppy spoke about the need for students to be able to register with a GP both at home and at university or college, while Jeremy highlighted the importance of making sure any non-professional modes of provision, such as peer support, are carefully regulated and that the peer supporters are well trained.

NUS will be producing reports in the coming weeks on both FE and HE mental health policies, and the discussions on our mental health day have fed into those reports.

4. Mental health policies cannot be tackled in isolation

Finally, we were joined by Malia Bouattia, our National President, via Skype as she was up in Scotland! Malia talked about NUS’ priority campaign this year, Liber8, of which one strand is ‘More for mental health’, and how the fight for better services is linked to struggles for a liberated curriculum, or for more affordable housing.

As students in 2017, we face a fight on many different fronts, whether it’s against the government’s Higher Education reforms, or against cuts to colleges, while we are continuing our struggle against the Prevent duty and xenophobia on our campuses.

All of these issues intersect with and affect our mental health, and it’s crucial we draw these struggles together to present a united vision for education that is inclusive of mental health while recognising its relationship to other challenges.


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