We don’t understand.
According to the UK Mental Health Foundation, one in four people will experience problems with their mental health in any given year. One in four. That means that around 2,000 students at this university are currently, or have been in the past year, suffering from mental health problems.
The way in which an anonymous St Andrews student, referred to in our news article as Mr Smith, was mistreated by our University is nothing short of a disgrace. Perhaps it is a cruel reality that instances so absurd as this one are necessary in order for the University authorities, prompted by outcry from the student body, to enact change. The fact that the University has no standardised policy on how departments should deal with students with mental health issues is shameful. It is about time that they change it.
Change must also be brought to Student Services, which may pride itself on a “bespoke” service but, as we show today by telling the stories of Messrs Smith, Jones and Simpson, is failing to meet the needs of these students who need it most. Few other services at the University need to be as unfailing as this one. We must not allow students to slip through the net.
Both candidates for the sabbatical position of director of representation (DoRep), Ali West and Ondrej Hajda, have made addressing the Students’ Association and the University’s approach to mental health a top manifesto priority.
And rightly so. If ever there was a compelling case for student government and representation, this is surely it. Teddy Woodhouse’s efforts in the job this year have been an excellent start when it comes to raising awareness of mental health; they cannot be in vain.
But it’s easy to point fingers. How easy it is to sit on high and criticise the University for being so out of touch with society. However, we all know that the University is not alone in misunderstanding and unintentionally mistreating those who suffer from mental health problems.The very fact that the students who suffered in this way wish to remain anonymous, and the fact that this is so understandable, indicates a much wider societal stigma that is associated with mental health.
For many the problem is as simple as out of sight, out of mind; but for those who have ever suffered themselves, or ever known somebody who has suffered, from serious depression, crippling anxiety, or any other mental health problems, they know that nothing could be further from the truth.
We have a proud tradition of mutual helpfulness in St Andrews. Nightline, for example, is a charity that trains students in universities across the UK to provide an emotionally supportive listening service throughout the night. If you’ve ever needed them, you’ll know what a fantastic group of people they are. In St Andrews, they are oversubscribed for volunteers almost every year.
But we all must do more. We call for those who have been through or supported somebody through mental health issues not to remain silent, but to speak up about them. Share your experiences. And for those who don’t know, those who don’t understand, try to listen and learn. The stigma feeds off our silence. Nightline is a fantastic service, but the discretion of the volunteers potentially has the unforeseen effect of keeping the problem quiet. The only way to puncture the stigma is to speak out.
We don’t understand; we feel helpless. We try to dismiss the problem, saying either out loud or to ourselves: “I feel depressed sometimes too.”
But we can do something about it. You can do something about it, today. Cast your vote and ensure that next year’s director of representation makes mental health a top priority. Keep talking about this.
Call us idealistic, call us cliché, but if we work together then we will go some way towards addressing how we treat those who suffer from mental health problems.
The University has responded to this article here.
- Updated 7 March to reflect that the University does have a centralised mental health policy