By Dom Smithies (Community & Wellbeing officer)
Ever since I joined this University back in late 2013, mental health has been a prominent topic around campus. Many colleges, liberation networks and campaign groups have been working to raise awareness of mental health - and everything within the umbrella. Throughout my time at Uni I’ve seen many campaigns to raise awareness of services that exist within the University and around York, around the impact of mental health with certain groups and on raising awareness of particular forms of mental ill-health.
What I’ve also seen, during my time at Uni, is the national media, finally acknowledge something that many of us have known to be true for a long time: there is a mental health crisis across universities. As living costs increase, debt increases and our NHS is being declared ‘at breaking point’ - on top of the challenge of having to burn the candle at both ends to keep on top of academic workloads, extra-curricular commitments and jobs - it’s no surprise to see reports from the Higher Education Policy Institute and the NUS calling for recommendations to be implemented across Universities that ensure more funding towards support services and more practical support for students throughout their degrees.
While this is a national issue, it’s also been quite acute in York with huge rises in demand from support and information services including the Open Door service, College welfare teams and YUSU’s Advice & Support Centre. Additionally, the closure of Bootham Park Hospital in 2015 without any sufficient & immediate replacement, meant that specialised clinical provision in York vanished, leaving students and other patients needing to travel further afield to get crucial support.
However, thanks to the continued efforts of lots of student campaigners, representatives and staff the University addressed the issue head-on and the Vice-Chancellor put together a Student Mental Ill-Health Task Group, headed up by Hilary Graham - a professor in Health Sciences. The Taskforce worked tirelessly and released an extensive report in March of 2016, on the state of provision and needs at the University along with a list of recommendations the University can take up and a proposed action plan to achieve the recommendations within 12 months (which you can see at the end of the report).
I came into office over the summer, just before the University announced it’s commitment of £500k, over three years, to enhance student services. While the announcement was hugely positive and well received, I was elected on a platform of ensuring services were improved and that there was student input along the way so I have continued holding the University to account with the outlined recommendations of the report.
York is being viewed as trailblazing in its approach to facing the issue and to addressing it so quickly. Other Universities are looking to us as an example of a University that goes beyond admitting there is a problem and resolves to take action to address it. That’s something we as students of York can be proud of. But since the report, which came out almost a year ago, we haven’t really heard anything other than this announcement of £500k, so I thought I’d share just a few headlines of what is going on, where that money is going because so many of you have a vested interested in this and have every right to know.
Here is a summary of progress that was recently reported:
“The establishment of an integrated University of York website for student mental health.” It is very snazzy - it was a much needed overhaul that now has a lot more information and signposting so students can seek out the support they need - check it out at: https://www.york.ac.uk/students/health/
“Recruited 34 students who use both Open Door & Disability to look at their experience of using the university support services. These student-led Focus groups are going to ask ‘What is effective?’, ‘What might be changed and how might this happen?’ etc.”
“Further development of Mental Health First Aid training for staff.” I believe this is primarily for student-facing staff (academics, services, etc.). Should hopefully have a hugely positive impact!
“Recruitment of a Senior Practitioner and a Practice Manager for Open Door & Disability to increase capacity and enable work on development of the services offered.”
“Attendance at meetings creating links between the University of York, City of York and NHS Providers.”
“Recruitment of an Assistant Registrar (Promoting Community Cohesion & Respect). Part of this role is to look at social media abuse.” I had the privilege of being on the interview panel for this position and am very excited to starting work with them.
The Student Mental Health Forum, which I sit on, will be looking to update/rewrite the university's policies around mental health. It had its first meeting on the 16th of December so it is up and running!
In addition to holding the University to account in line with the recommendations of the Graham report, I’ve also been working with the NHS & Council to improve York’s services. I’ve been a part of the Student Health Needs Assessment Steering Group - a taskforce set-up in the Public Health department of the Council to focus on identifying the gap between the needs of the student demographic and the service provision - assisting them in consulting with students, running focus groups and drop-ins and pushing their survey so they get a wide range of responses. I’ve also worked with the NHS - particularly, The Vale of York Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) - pushing for them to come to campus to run consultation sessions with students on what the new mental health hospital should provide & where it would be ideally located, how it can be as accessible as possible for our students and helping to promote its consultation to ensure the student voice is heard through the decision making process.
This is only the beginning of a sustained effort to tackle mental ill-health within our University. We’re on the right tracks but I know that the University won’t solve the problem in isolation. A joined up approach is essential. The University cannot be a substitute for the NHS and crucial mental health services; nor can the NHS be expected solely to fulfil all of the demands of the student population. Mental health is going to be at crisis if either, or both, aren’t doing enough to support students. The University is listening and making efforts to improve so we need to ensure that our voices continue to be heard so that the Council and the Government protect & support our NHS in doing its invaluable work for students.