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Personal experience: we need to change our university’s mental health services

In August I will be resitting an exam so I can progress to honours. This is because I didn’t pass some of my courses this year due to my depression and anxiety. I was offered the resit through special circumstances, so to all intents and purposes, the university has accommodated my mental health issues.

However, getting to the point where I was offered a resit was extremely complicated and stressful. There was little communication from the university and a lack of understanding of how my mental illness would impact the process.

It is well known that universities have a problem with dealing with mental health. This year, there have been 29 student suicides across the UK. This should shock us. As students, we are in an environment where we should have plenty of people to talk to. Everyday, we go to lectures and tutorials often with the same group of people, and have regular contact with multiple tutors who know about us. So why do so many students feel alone when battling a mental illness?

For me, the problem at Edinburgh is the lack of clear information on who you should speak to when you have a personal problem. We have personal tutors, support staff, course organisers, counselling services and peer support groups. All this is great – but if it’s not actually clear when to speak to whom, it’s completely pointless. Personally, I’ve had three personal tutors in the two years I’ve been at the university, making it near impossible to develop a relationship. My current personal tutor would have no idea who I was if I passed him on the street. This is not necessarily his fault,  and is perhaps due to the fact that university staff are given more and more responsibilities and no extra time to fulfil them. This in turn causes a problem with the mental health of our staff. If students feel alone with this list of people they should be able to talk to, how must lecturers and office staff feel?

There needs to be a significant shift in how the university approaches mental health. When originally founded, universities were places that facilitated higher education through open and honest discussion. Universities should represent wider society, and it is a mystery to me how somewhere that is meant to lead in research and discovery has such a poor reputation for having conversations that matter. How have we got to a place where students and staff alike don’t feel they can tell each other how they’re feeling?

After having a very difficult experience, I’ve decided I have to use what happened to me in a productive way. We need change – from the smallest thing, such as stopping the receptionist in counselling calling out your name for all to hear, to the bigger things, such as ensuring all personal tutors have mental health training. The system at the moment cannot continue as it is. The university must make big changes, and soon. We need to address the high suicide rate amongst men, make special circumstances a clearer process, and reduce the waiting list on the counselling service – it is unfair on both counsellors and students to have to sometimes wait 6 weeks to get an initial appointment.

To enact this change, I am working on an open letter to Peter Mathieson, Vice Chancellor of the University; Gavin Douglas, head of Student Experience; and Eleri Connick, President of the Student’s Association. In order to represent the views and experiences of as many students as possible, I put together two surveys, to discover which issues should be a priority. I will publish a letter using the results of these surveys, which students will be encouraged to sign.

I have always believed that universities are places of debate and change. As students, we have the power to improve and influence our community, and we have a duty to make it better for those who come after us.

The stigma around mental health continues to exist. My hope with this letter is that we will open up the conversation around sadness and worry, and make it more acceptable to tell people how we’re really feeling. If you do one thing today, tell someone about something that’s worrying you, or check in on a friend you haven’t heard from in a while. We can all make a difference to someone’s mental health, we just have to talk.

If you wish to read Emma’s open letter you can do so here

If you wish to sign Emma’s open letter you can do so here


2 replies on “Personal experience: we need to change our university’s mental health services”

I had a similar experience when I was unable to sit my Christmas exams this year due to severe anxiety in the weeks leading up to them. I also found the experience of applying for special circumstances and trying to get support from the University very difficult. Every person I contacted sent me to contact someone else and the long process made my anxiety even worse. My personal tutor was extremely unhelpful and when I contacted my departments student services I was just given the email address of someone else to contact. I was also told that the wait for university counselling was months and that I should pay for private therapy instead. Since returning to University in January, having been very close to dropping out, my personal tutor made no attempt to reach out to me apart from the mandatory one meeting of the term. Without the support of my family and friends I definitely wouldn’t have made it through the year. Edinburgh really need to sort out their mental health services.

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