The University of Edinburgh is attempting to implement a proposal which would enable a panel to force students to take interruptions to their studies if deemed necessary for mental health reasons. This epitomises everything that is wrong with the university’s approach to mental health.
Currently, students can choose to ask for some time away from their studies to focus on self-care. I, myself, took an interruption last year after finding the existing university mechanisms for helping me tackle my depression, alongside my studies, entirely insufficient. Whilst assessing the best course of action to take my personal tutor told me that talking about my depression made her uncomfortable and other staff members refused to tell me what the likely outcome would be of my special circumstances application. I was only told about every part of the decision nearly a year later. I had already been on an interruption for six months.
The university failed to keep me informed and treat me with any respect before going on an interruption. If it weren’t for my incredible student support officer (SSO), I would probably have had to leave altogether. However, upon returning to full time education, I have found their approach to be even worse. I have not received even an email asking how I am readjusting to university life. The university did not communicate with me at all during my year-long interruption, and yet they expect students like me to resume their studies seamlessly, as if nothing had happened.
I chose to go on an interruption of studies because I knew for me that it was the right course of action. That does not mean that it is for everyone. It is a really challenging experience which can lead to social stigmatisation, financial insecurity and an overwhelming pressure to fabricate quick-fix solutions to persistent mental health problems and illnesses. The difficulties of going on an interruption are exacerbated for international students who may face implications regarding their visas and for students who are not in a fit condition to work because of how this would affect their funding.
When I asked to go on an interruption of studies university staff agreed instantly. This suggests that this is their immediate response to any mental health problem, therefore the precedent this proposal sets is very worrying. If university management actually believe that forcing a student to delay their studies against their will is conducive to their well-being, then this only demonstrates how much more work student activists, sabbatical officers and the student body at large needs to do to change perceptions surrounding mental illness on campus.
If this proposal is implemented a student could unwillingly have their funding withdrawn for up to a year, face additional difficulties from landlords and letting agents and lose their sense of self-worth and inclusion within university social groups. Watching helplessly as one’s friends graduate and embark on their careers, whilst being left behind, can induce crippling loneliness and cause mental illness to spiral out of control. Far from helping students, this proposal would punish the most vulnerable for their welfare requirements.
Only one student sits on the committee which is due to vote on the implementation of this proposal. This demonstrates how out of touch the university establishment is on this issue. There has been no effort to consult students on something that would directly affect their well-being. This proposal is abhorrent, and instead the university should do the following if they are serious about addressing mental illness on campus: invest significantly more money into the counselling and disability services; publish regular updates on the mental health training of personal tutors; give students more assistance with special circumstances applications and flexibility with submission deadlines and most importantly consult students regarding their illnesses and needs. Students are autonomous, they deserve respect.
Illustration: Hannah Robinson