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Student Mental Health Emergency: Pre and Post-COVID-19

The current global pandemic aside for now, it is safe to say that student mental health services are glaringly inadequate. Prior to self-isolation and social distancing, mental health care and treatment offered by universities in the UK have been dismal. This is not the fault of the NHS - health care workers are just as affected by governmental budget cuts, as well as an overworked system.

Despite increased tuition fees and large budgets, universities across the UK have failed to provide meaningful access to mental health services, falling short in their broader support for students. The position of universities as competitors and businesses creates a system that de-prioritises student mental health. BBC research has revealed some universities spend a budget of less than £1million a year on well-being services and only a handful of universities could supply information on how long students were waiting for counselling.

In my own experience, waiting for university mental health services to reply to my initial request took 6 weeks. Following this, I received an email stating ‘...given the time since your application, we recognise that your circumstances may have changed’….going on to ask whether I would still like access to their services, and if I did not reply within five working days, they would assume that I longer require an assessment.

This is discouraging and disappointing. Students with pressing mental health issues must not be subject to long waiting times. Otherwise, those requiring support may feel as though their mental health is unimportant. Students may not have the mental capacity to immediately reply or might miss one email - they would then have to reapply and wait again. There are many obstacles in the way of receiving adequate services. Thousands of students are left struggling to cope with the pressures of education, living alone, financial struggles, new independence, perhaps alongside their own pre-existing mental health conditions.

Image: Canva (2020)

Mental health struggles create a physical impact, both in and outside of the body. Depression means that the production of cortisol in the hippocampus is increased. In sum, this slows Neuron production; responsible for regulating emotions, making decisions, and forming memories - which can shrink. Physical alterations take place in those suffering from depression, which requires proper treatment. Without treatment, the consequences are severe.

In 2019, The Guardian revealed that between 2016-2017, "the rate of suicide for university students in England and Wales was 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students, which equates to 95 suicides or about one death every four days." With rising suicide rates over the years among students, in addition to rising drop-out rates, there has never been a greater need for adequate mental health support.

In the current environment is the culture of productivity creates a precarious situation for students. The result of the belief that no moment should be left unseized, and all time not spent building or creating is worthless.

The global pandemic, however, has worsened the crisis. The stresses of COVID-19, worrying about loved ones, employment, and the state of the world - with the constant stream of news and death toll updates- creates yet another obstacle to mental health.

Thrusting students with frail mental health into stressful situations in a world where their lives are no longer dictated by schedules, classes, meetings, and work, is revealing the problematic ways we view and value ourselves. When students can no longer fall back on the rigid routine set for themselves to achieve every goal - where do they go? For those in therapy, they can no longer access these services except possibly online, though it is not quite the same, nor is internet access available to all.

For those who did not even have access to therapy or treatment before: how can we help them?

The NHS's mental health services have been depleted significantly in recent years, and the current crisis has created a system in which demand far exceeds the supply. The Guardian also revealed in 2017 that approximately 60% of under-18s who were referred to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) did not receive treatment. It seems students face extreme barriers when seeking mental health support, both in their institution and the national services, especially amidst a global pandemic.

It is only fairly recently that these services have been placed in the spotlight or given importance, but reform hasn’t followed. Budget cuts and restraints on the part of the government and universities should be re-evaluated with mental health as a priority. Online therapy services must be improved and increased. Students and others shouldn't be turned away from treatment. The ability to help must come before a crisis, not halfway through.

Until then, focusing on small things may make a difference. Set small goals - even changing out of pyjamas or taking a shower can make a world of difference when the days blend together. Activities like reading, exercising, playing with pets, and learning a skill - no matter how long it takes - can help just a little. Of course, hobbies and passing the time are not a substitute for actual therapy or official treatment, nor do they significantly alter brain chemistry - which is what depression can do. Coming out of a depressive state takes time and help, but recognising that it will feel better eventually, and you can do little things to help yourself in the meantime.

On the other side of the pandemic, hopefully we will have realised the real value of the NHS and of medical professionals, alongside the importance of mental health. We owe it to ourselves and them, coming out of a difficult time of global panic and economic hardships, to extend mental health services, especially to those who have suffered and lost during this time.

Edited by Ellie Muir

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