University is sold as a good time–study abroad, doubly so. The all-social all-the-time, package-holiday freshers’ weeks that usher us into university life are, the story goes, the best of your life. As the years have gone by, many of even the most excitable seventeen-year-olds have stopped seriously believing this story, but the hope, and the product, remains. I passed the first year of university relatively unscathed–though many others I know were not so lucky–but it is often in subsequent years that students find their mental health deteriorates: first, as the second year of uni drags on, the fragile connections made in the compulsive collective drinking sessions that define freshers culture vanish; in the inescapable tumult of the city, of haphazard and threadbare routines structured by a bare handful of contact hours and insomniac end-of-term frenzies of work, it is easy to feel increasingly isolated.
For the increasing numbers of us who spend part of our degrees abroad–as much for the more marketable result as for the experience–‘Culture shock’ is a well-known phenomenon, and while students abroad are still very poorly supported, the sense of disorientation and the depression it can trigger are at least more strongly highlighted than they once were. But it is the continuities of the pressures of UK student life and life thrown head-first into a foreign country, moreso than the enormous differences, that are striking: there are the same social difficulties, the same feelings of alienation, and the same intractable problems with Student Finance, all while huddled with semi-strangers two-to-a-room in a Russian hostel. Starting student life can be a culture shock of its own; life in general is becoming a permanent backdrop of shocks.
The provision and support you can find at universities is not worse, but often not much better, than that you can expect ‘in the community’: prescriptions of citalopram from in-house psychiatrists that clatter in book-bags like rattlers become, later, ten-minute visits from the Home Treatment Team that may be your only social contact for many weeks. But it is not just the availability of specific services for students struggling with their mental health, nor even, by themselves, broader informal networks of social support that are essential to the recovery of anyone with a mental health problem that are at issue. The very feasibility, the very possibility, of those services and networks are being destroyed by the same forces that are dismantling the university itself. The structures that form and have formed that mythical, lucrative ‘student experience’ post-92 are those of destabilization, exploitation, and alienation–of ourselves from our accelerating city surroundings as well as from our own increasingly expensive and dubiously beneficial studies. Students are spaded into halls and buy-to-let properties, one to every room, preparing the way for gentrification and for a life of itinerant renting; the food poverty that was once considered a rite of passage is more probably now a process of desensitization to that awaiting the mass of us in un- and under-employment.
The uncertainty of our immediate and long-term futures as students and workers, the spiralling rents, ballooning debts and the ever-longer working hours we must take up to be able to eat: these are all unprecedented pressures on the mental health of the student population. Universities can try to mitigate this, but the overriding tendency of privatization and the corporatization of the management structure is to worsen it. The Gower Place Practice that provides thousands of UCL students with essential services is under threat, unaffordable student accommodation is constructed without natural light, and expansion attempts to displace and demolish the homes of entire local communities; meanwhile, our provosts flit between lucrative expenses-laden university posts and the boards overseeing the destruction of the NHS.
The direction of social, economic, and educational policy represents a threat to our health, our security and our futures. Taking student mental health seriously means taking seriously, and resisting, this threat.