I want to talk about mental health.
As students we have higher levels of mental illness than the wider population [a].
Our society suggests to us that our ill mental health is our fault. That it is a generational thing. That we are a generation of snowflakes – that we melt at the first sign of something we disagree with – in fact I have been labelled the snowflake princess, with my disagreement with lad culture and islamophobia being cited as a reason.
However I disagree.
Why are our levels of mental illness higher than the generations before us? It might be in part because of a greater general understanding and awareness. It might be because of an increase in provision.
But we must also not ignore the role that our social settings play in contributing to ill mental health. We live in a society that pushes austerity measures despite, evidence which shows that austerity measures are linked to poorer mental health outcomes[b]. A society where we have seen a drastic increase in hate crime post Brexit, when we know that discrimination is also linked to poorer mental health outcomes [b]. And the services we look to for support, are the services that are being cut first.
We see our NHS services, cut.
Women’s refugees, cut.
Support for trans people, cut. [d]
Youth services, cut.
Housing support, cut.
And when we ask for spaces to talk about the oppression we face. To give us some hope. To allow us to offer peer support and organise. We are called snowflakes.
Mental health is political. And those who seek to belittle our efforts to support ourselves are part of a bigger problem.
You elected me last year and I promised to put mental health back on the agenda of the student movement. I have kept my promise and made fighting for better and adequate mental health services a key part of NUS’ priority campaign, along with an often overlooked-but crucial- element of this work, liberating the curriculum.
We need to recognise that an increase in mental health services cannot be the only response to the challenges we face. The problematic curricula which underpin the medicalisation of social distress must be challenged. So whilst we must fight for more resources, we must also fight to improve the social circumstances that trigger such symptoms. We have seen some small but inspiring progress in this around the world over the past year. For instance, we saw Denmark[e] remove ‘transgenderism’ as a mental illness this year, and in doing that recognise our responsibility to reexamine gender as a social construct.
I am proud to say we have started this work in NUS as well. In February of this year we held a roundtable for Further Education students where we looked at what it is that triggers poor mental health, and what we can do to improve the system as a whole.
Particularly in a context of cuts and divestment from colleges. In March of this year, we brought student activists together in NUS to look at how we can organise as mental health activists to create change on campuses. We also co-organised and supported an event, which I also spoke at, Distress and the Diaspora which looked at decolonising mental health and included panels and workshops examining gender, sexuality, religion, the role of the state, the community and education in examining mental health in African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean communities. It was an empowering and opening space that I hope is just the start of a conversation and a set of actions which aim to tackle problematic aspects of our services, such as the increased rates schizophrenia for people of african descent in the UK and a lack of culturally competent services. We also had better support put in place for our volunteers as a result of the Institutional Racism Review that I pushed for in NUS. We recognise this as a win, but also hope to see changes which make our spaces more supportive to those that engage with us.
It is in this vein that I have started the research, alongside the Disabled Students’ campaign on culturally-competent services and the accessibility of mental health services to students who are part-time, mature, disabled, international students and parents and carers. I have also worked with the Disabled Students campaign on new tools for students unions to assess counseling and psychological services on their campuses in terms of funding, accreditation and practices. This includes an app that will allow students to measure the quality of the services they receive on each campus. I am using my platform to raise these issues wherever I can. At Universities UK (UUK) Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Conference, I spoke on a panel about the funding gap in counselling and how it’s failing to meet rising levels of stress, depression and suicide, and the responsibility universities have to ensure they properly protect and support students.
I recognise the importance of supporting our mental health needs, and have been active on this for many years. I was awarded a prize from Black Mental Health in 2015 [f] for the work I have done in the area, in creating spaces and fighting for changes. It is an issue close to my heart, and one I promise to continue to put at the centre of NUS’ work, if you re-elect me as president.