by Dominique Hua
CN: mental health problems, lack of mental health support,
isolation, debt, stress
UCL, along with a number of universities across the country, is facing a serious mental health crisis. Over 33% of students at UCL suffer from clinical levels of mental distress during their time at the university – while another 10-15% suffer from moderate levels of mental distress. Currently, students seeking support from UCL’s Student Psychological Services have to wait a minimum of 6 weeks just for an initial consultation, some being kept waiting for up to three months. Even then, the service lacks the capacity to see hundreds of those who register for support. Over the last 10 years, student numbers at UCL have more than doubled but funding for mental health services has not kept up. At the same time, at least 196 staff members in the university earn more than £140,000- the money is there, it’s just not going to services that students so desperately need.
“At least 196 staff members in the university earn more than £140,000- the money is there, it’s just not going to services that students so desperately need”
The university is failing its students, at a time in their lives when they need support the most. The day-to-day stress of making ends meet (especially in a city like London), the prospect of leaving university with tens of thousands of pounds of debt and the pressures of academia alone mean that the university needs to step in to address students’ mental health problems, which the underfunded NHS is unable to. A recent Guardian article put the average waiting time in the HE sector for access to mental health services at 15 days- UCL’s provision clearly falls far short even of this low bar – and is failing its students as a result.
In February 2017, over 2000 students at UCL petitioned senior management to provide enough funding for 6.5 extra counsellors- to the cost of £340,000, less than the provost Michael Arthur makes in a year. In the response, the university carried out a review of its internal services and proposed a series of adjustments – but on the central question of funding, we were met with silence.
This was simply unacceptable. In response, the students’ union launched a grassroots campaign, and we set about broadening out our demands. In addition to increased funding, we’ve also called for the removal of the arbitrary six-session cap on the number of sessions to which each student is entitled. Following concerns raised by students from ethnic minority backgrounds, we’ve requested cultural competency training for all of the service’s psychologists. Plus, we’ve demanded that all employees at SPS remain in-house UCL staff, and for any new employees to also be put on secure, in-house and permanent contracts.
“In response, two senior figures – including the Director of Student Support and Wellbeing – openly laughed in derision”
The fact that the mental wellbeing of students is even up for debate, the fact that students face week-long waiting lists just to be seen, the fact that senior management continue to make obscene amounts of money every year, while students often face these severe issues alone, means that something that should be non-negotiable has suddenly become a political issue on campus. The importance of adequate mental health services is something that most students can agree on, and it is a fight we’re willing to take to senior management.
We’ve dropped a banner on the university’s historical quadrangle on World Mental Health Day to protest the fact that instead of materially improving the mental health of its students, UCL was just bringing in petting dogs for the day. We’ve sent an open letter to the senior management, a letter signed by academics and student representatives. And a few weeks ago we occupied the provost’s balcony, demanding that UCL stop neglecting the mental health of its students. Just two days previously, the union’s sabbatical officers had met with senior management to reassert the case for more funding and impress upon them the urgency of UCL’s mental health crisis; in response, two senior figures – including the Director of Student Support and Wellbeing – openly laughed in derision.
“They can no longer ignore our presence and our anger. UCL, it’s time to fund SPS”
Finally, on the 6th December 2017, students from across the university disrupted UCL’s annual graduate open day, the strong turnout on a frosty December afternoon indicative of just how deeply this issue has resonated with the student body. For any university, open days such as these are a vital exercise in marketing; so we marched across campus, drowning out conversations with chants and placards and passing around leaflets to sell the UCL that we have all experienced – one that cares more about its image than its students. There was a real sense of solidarity and anger amongst students who marched for around two hours, keeping the energy and the noise at a maximum at all times.
The university’s response has been pitifully inadequate: they issued a statement shortly after the demo detailing a ‘revamp’ of their Student Support and Wellbeing Services, which amounted to nothing more than a disingenuous attempt to fob off a couple of meaningless changes as significant improvements. There remains no commitment to increase funding and the newly expanded telephone counselling and drop-in sessions with non-accredited ‘welfare advisors’ are not a substitute for proper healthcare. It’s clear that management have heard our demands but have still been unable to make what are, frankly, very basic changes; they can no longer ignore our presence and our anger. UCL, it’s time to fund SPS.
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