This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and I thought it would be positive to raise awareness of Union activities around mental health and outline some of the issues faced by the student community and society.
On World Mental Health Week last year, I released a personal blog to the whole of the King’s community, students and staff:
‘I want to tell you that the perception of someone who seems high functioning is not always a reality. There have been a lot of times as a student when I’ve considered dropping out because of my mental health or quitting my role as your Student Officer. Sometimes when all you want to do is lay in bed and not speak to anyone, paying bills, doing extra jobs, studying and going to the library can be impossible, as can getting out of bed to brush your teeth or go into the outside world. Daily interactions can be at best a challenge and at worst impossible. Your Union President has mental health problems.’
I received a lot of emails and had extremely positive conversations with students and staff across King’s after this piece was released, and I am hugely grateful for them.
But I didn’t publish my personal story for encouragement or personal comfort, I published it to spark a conversation at King’s around mental health, and, more than this, proper focus and attention to be paid to improving mental health.
There has been a huge amount of activity since this. I asked College Council and the College’s Senior Leadership to instigate a mental health strategy group, which I currently sit on. This group brings together different staff across the institution to implement improved mental health provisions and to give recommendations on improvements to mental health.
I also began work with the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, encouraging students to join their research programme so we could look further into the links between rising student debt and mental health. There has been a sharp increase in mental health cases among students since the trebling of tuition fees in 2010, but there is little data to try and establish the link between increasing levels of student debt and mental health. As I wrote in a guest blog for the Institute in April, as someone from a widening participation background:
‘There isn’t yet clear-cut evidence about the link between the threat of debt and mental health problems amongst students. From my own experience, however, the balancing act ?between avoiding huge amounts of debt whilst maintaining both academic work and unstable casual work is a cause for anxiety amongst young people.’
There is a plethora of other Union activity other than representative roles, including everything from a joint member of staff between KCLSU and KCL in wellbeing to the mental health project being undertaken in our KCLSU Advice Team.
One part of mental health awareness that we need to highlight on Mental Health Awareness Week is that of students of colour. For years, our students of colour have been telling us that they need more competent mental health care from services that understand their context. A 2012 report highlighted that:
At least half of disabled people of colour live in acute poverty, compared with 32% of all disabled people in the population as a whole. Less than 4/10 BME disabled people of working age are in employment.
Social isolation is higher among disabled people of colour, in particular for women of colour, migrants and carers who are people of colour.
We can see the explicit links here between debt, poverty and disabled people of colour. Mental health is an intersectional issue that cuts across different identities and affects groups differently.
The report recommended that institutions move beyond cultural competency training to care that is under the ‘PLATO’ model:
‘Person-centred’ – engaging with user-led organisations to understand cultural dimensions of person-centred planning.
Local – support existing people of colour disabled organisations.
Advocacy – build networks of community and self-advocates, who can improve service access and outcomes for people of colour who are disabled.
Translation – refresh translation strategies, work to develop more effective translation opportunities.
Outreach – improve outreach in local communities, who should contribute to the development of community support networks.
Mental health provisions at King’s are a long way from meeting a model like this, but to actually make a difference in society, we need to support the health of our students of colour.
We need to work to partner more with local community organisations, and the service at King’s needs more resources to adequately implement a model that is competent for students of colour. A personalised service recognises different identities and barriers that students face will, further, be beneficial in improving the mental health of all students.
This work will be integral to the formulation of the mental health strategy going forward so that the concerns that have been raised year on year by students of colour are acknowledged.
We have a long way to go at King’s, as does every University, in adequate and competent mental health support for all students. The mental health strategy work that we have launched with College will, I hope, look into funding for mental health support. The first thing that we should recognise is the size of the task at hand.
In my time as President, I have prioritised improving mental health for all students, through revealing my story, partnering with other organisations and beginning the strategy work at King’s. I look forward to seeing this work continue in the years to come, and more increasing work to tackle student mental health.