By Jess O’Dwyer
Content warning: mentions suicide
Going to university is a challenging time. For many it is their first time away from home with full independence. New students are presented with countless opportunities and choices, many of which will shape and change them as people. For people with mental health issues, however, this challenge is often exacerbated.
Unfortunately, even though universities like to claim and promote how inclusive, friendly and welcoming they are, the truth is not always the same as the marketing strategy. Over the past academic year, four UEA students have committed suicide. As a result of this, a new student-run campaign called #NotEnough has been launched, calling for “meaningful SSS [Student Support Services] reform, transparency and accountability, and professional, specialised staff.”
In March, I attended a Not Enough event titled ‘We Will Be Heard’. We lined up in the Student Union building where we each collected a stone and were asked to write either our name or the name of someone we care about and place it under a tree in the Square as a show of solidarity. I was confused at first about why we were being guided by staff rather than members of the Students’ Union, but I was informed by my friend Thai Braddick (a non-portfolio student officer and organiser with Not Enough) that the staff wanted to be included, so that they were doing something, no matter how small. I can understand that sentiment – I can see how university staff could feel powerless when management are not taking sufficient action and the changes needed to right this situation are not going to happen overnight.
The campaign was set up by a student called Ayeshah Lalloo, whose letter to the management at UEA eloquently captured what many students were feeling about the situation:
I wonder which student will be the last. I wonder which death will finally propel you into action. Make a hole in your pocket big enough so that you might be able to get up and do something. Death after death, no one does anything. When it comes to mental health, the university is soulless. Yes, dog walking is great. Yes, drop in sessions are great. Yes, anti-depressants are great. But you cannot treat them as solutions. You cannot do the bare minimum and pat yourselves on the back.
Many people immediately make the jump from Sixth Form to University within the space of the Summer holidays – a mere few months. There is an immense amount of pressure for young people to immediately decide at 18 what they want to do with the rest of their lives, even though this is not really how things work out for most people. Some people take their entire lives to figure out what sort of path they want to follow, or just figure it out as they go. Unfortunately there is a stigma associated with this kind of freewheeling attitude. In the eyes of society, if you don’t have a plan, you won’t be able to make enough money to live on and you’ll be a Failure. This attitude is completely unfair. How can you expect an 18 year-old to know themselves well enough to plot out the exact course of their life? It’s impossible. It’s no wonder young people are under so much stress and turn to nihilistic memes for a sense of relief. There is an impending sense of doom hanging over this generation, a feeling that if they make one small misstep everything is over, that you’ll be left in a ditch to suffer alone.
We should be very sceptical of ‘solidarity’ coming from people in power who don’t actually listen to people’s concerns until someone has died
The Vice Chancellor of UEA, David Richardson, claims that “We need to tackle these issues on a whole-community basis” and that this is “not simply a question of money”. These are just pretty words from an overpaid, out-of-touch bureaucrat. We should be very sceptical of ‘solidarity’ coming from people in power who don’t actually listen to people’s concerns until someone has died. There needs to be a culture shift, and in my opinion that includes both staff and students. This is a societal issue and is not restricted to universities, but there are particular things that universities can and should do to make the transition to university easier, and they can be summed up in three steps:
- Take students seriously and listen to their experiences.
- Hire more professional, specialised staff.
- Make sure every student is looked after from the moment they arrive – don’t leave them to fend for themselves in those crucial first few weeks.
We should remember the names of those we have lost: Theo Brennan Hulme, Jess Fairweather, Nick Sadler, Jonathan Walker, Sophie Smith and many others in many other universities. We should not forget them and their memories should be what drives us to right the wrongs that were done to them and to those that still continue to suffer. I think it is what they, and we, deserve.
There is now a #NotEnough Facebook page where students have the opportunity to submit their mental health experiences at UEA and their opinion on what the university is or isn’t doing to help. Find it at facebook.com/NotEnoughUEA
Featured image credit: #NotEnough
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