Healthy University Champions

Lorna Finlayson

Like most of my colleagues, I was until recently unaware of the changes the University of Essex is planning to make to its provision of support for students suffering from mental illness. In general, we hear about such changes only once they are a fait accompli, and are told that it is too late to do anything about them. If we pick up rumours earlier in the process, we are told that it is too early: the idea is still just an idea, still at the ‘consultation’ stage, nothing has been decided yet. Even now, after the story has hit the national press, I have so far been unable to get a full and clear account of the planned changes from university administrators.

The outlines, however, are plain enough. As part of a ‘sector-wide shift towards seeing wellness as part of a much broader and more complex matter than simply mental health’, the university’s qualified counsellors will be replaced by a team of ‘well-being assessors’, who will be required only to have two A-levels and some relevant experience. Counselling will be provided through ‘partnership arrangements’ with an as-yet-unnamed outside body (mental health support for staff is already provided through an arrangement with Validium, a company which promises ‘solutions that quantifiably increase the value of people to the business’). There will also be a shift towards the use of online materials in place of face-to-face therapy. All of this against a background of deteriorating mental health, among students and staff alike, and soaring demand for support services.

Academics, meanwhile, already struggling to support a growing number of students with unmet mental health needs, are being asked to volunteer as ‘Healthy University Champions’, which will involve sacrificing any remaining lunch breaks we have in order to ‘communicate activities’, attend ‘events’, and provide 'reviews on said activities to assist with the implementation of further ideas and so on’. The ‘Healthy University Sub-Strategy’ aims to promote ‘a positive concept of health and well-being for staff and students’. Because well-being is ‘complex’, baskets of fruit are to be placed in offices, and we are all free to enjoy the ‘plumbed-in water’ available across the Colchester campus. At Southend, ‘motivational stickers’ will power staff and students up the stairs.

I wonder if the people responsible for these initiatives have any idea how offensive they are. That the university presents the cutting and outsourcing of counselling services as an ‘expansion’ of support suggests a very low estimation of our critical faculties. Believe it or not, I have already partaken of the plumbed-in water generously provided by my employer. I have even, on occasion, walked around a tree. Both were very good for my physical and mental health, as is the air my colleagues and I are able to breathe free of charge. I’m sure we will appreciate the fruit baskets too, though perhaps not as much as we would appreciate an end to the real-terms pay cuts we have seen over the last decade (the difference would pay for a lot of bananas).

It may look as if I'm mixing up two separate issues here: the ‘restructuring’ of mental health support for students, and the introduction of insulting gimmicks to improve the well-being of staff whose pay and conditions continue to be eroded. But the issues are not separate at all. To reverse one of the slogans used during the recent nationwide strike by lecturers, students’ learning conditions are our working conditions. Removing what was already an inadequately resourced system of support for students as demand for services rises, leaving overstretched academics to pick up the pieces while lecturing us about diet and exercise, will deal a further blow to the ‘wellness’ of both staff and students.

For all the rhetoric about the ‘complexity’ of mental health, the university’s approach only really makes sense on the assumption that it is all very simple – a matter of ‘positive’ thinking and fresh fruit. For all the talk of ‘raising awareness’ and ‘challenging stigma’, this approach obscures the nature and causes of mental illness while pushing responsibility for it onto the sufferer. When a university webpage tells students that ‘everyone has mental health – sometimes good, sometimes not so good’, that is on one level true (and obvious), but in a material context in which mental illness is not taken seriously, it's trivialising. Saying that ‘everyone has mental health’ doesn't help someone who is suicidal, or hears voices, or has been raped.

Nobody is denying that a better diet and more exercise can help with mental health problems. But the nature of mental illnesses such as depression can make it difficult or impossible to take the apparently simple steps prescribed. The environment of the contemporary university, too, leaves little time or space for the regimes of self-maintenance that are increasingly necessary in order to survive it.

Mental illness among students is often connected with or compounded by financial worries, family trauma, bereavement, sexual assault and other factors. The university cannot solve all of these problems, but it can do two things. It can provide well-qualified, well-resourced staff for students to talk to when they need to. And if it is really interested in creating a healthy environment, it can look at ways to reduce the financial pressure on students, instead of cutting bursaries to the bone while hiking rents. As mentally ill people are continually told, it is never too late to change direction.


  • 27 July 2018 at 8:20pm
    Bisenzio says:
    The Essex website quote ""Everyone has mental health – sometimes good, sometimes not so good" is hard to believe, except that it's there in black and white. It's as insulting as saying to someone "Everyone has a temperature, only some people have an especially high one, so nothing really to worry about".

  • 28 July 2018 at 3:37pm
    ruel fox says:
    Why should universities provide mental, or any other health support? As you say, fees are already far too high, and paying for all the non-teaching costs universities seem to provide today can't be helping with this. If I was a student with or without mental health problems I would be upset that my fees were being inflated by the cost of health services.

    • 31 July 2018 at 6:00pm
      Mary Braithwaite says: @ ruel fox
      They used to say this at Oxford in the 60's and 70'sbut eventually as suicide became more common they decided theyshould provide some services.It seemed clear to me they were mainly interested in students likely to get firsts and it is a fierce environment.
      I don't know if it is good to call all problems mental illness as depression and anxiety are common in the population and indeed anxiety is good up to a point.
      Being raped may cause PTSD but in itself distress in not a mental illness. Having people to talk to is a valuable asset which should be provided by counsellors and friends

    • 1 August 2018 at 4:42pm
      Rory Allen says: @ ruel fox
      The main reason to provide these services is to ensure that students can access them easily. If services are off campus and involve appointments through their local GPs, which may be hundreds of miles away if the student is registered at home, the effort needed by a depressed or panicky student may mean they don't make the effort.

      If services are two minutes walk away from the campus that they visit every day, and if the services are staffed by people who are familiar with students' problems and sympathetic to them, they are more likely to be effective.

      Does that answer your question?

      And by the way, if you were a student with serious mental health problems you would have more to worry about than "fees being inflated by the cost of health services". Do you know what percentage of current fees go towards mental health service provision? I suspect not, and no more do I, but I doubt if it is more than a fraction of a percent. If you really want to cut fees, perhaps you should support reducing the salaries of Vice Chancellors.

  • 28 July 2018 at 8:09pm
    mussessein says:
    Sadly, this seems all too representative of the frequent indifference of university middle management to the staff and services they're meant to be administering. Aditya Chakraborty's recent article in the Guardian ( similarly demonstrates how outsourcing suits an administrative management who are more interested in using as little effort as possible to impress a similarly uninterested level of management above them. You've no chance of hearing about any 'full and clear' plan as there probably isn't one, instead frontline staff (similarly ignored during the consultative phase I imagine) will end up trying to pick up the pieces. Despite the evidence of the documentation, most of the effort will probably have been spent on the blandardised prose justifying the project and its purpose. I keep hearing that our universities are under threat from a 'neoliberal culture', but it's not even that coherent. Though there are exceptions, they're being damaged by the ill thought-out vanity projects of mediocre managers dressed up in management speak.

  • 1 August 2018 at 7:45am
    Obb says:
    In a recent shake up of student services in my educational establishment, a member of staff was asked to reapply for their own (newly restructured) job. After 20 years of excellent service to students, said person was beaten to their own post by another "more qualified" candidate - a person with no experience of student services and no understanding of mental health issues.

    In the post-interview evaluation, the original job holder/applicant was told they were "too student orientated" rather than "systems orientated", ushering in a new era of statistics-focused student services rather than the quality of the outcome for the student.

    Our establishment now lauds itself in promotional literature on how effective Student Services are whilst lecturers take up the real problems as these services have been rendered ineffective.

    Still, we have slogans on our walls...

  • 1 August 2018 at 4:33pm
    PeterJohnMorris says:
    Universities are in the same boat as other institutions and businesses who have been subjected to "innovative management solutions", championed by consultants across the board, led by "market leaders" such as Deloitte, Booze Allen and Hamilton and McKinsey. Everyone sees them for what they are: a hoax, including the perpetrators. The only thing to do is smile and wave and ruthlessly work to sabotage these insults in a way that is so deeply embarrassing to those who advance them that they have to be shut down.

  • 2 August 2018 at 12:00pm
    Richard Sellwood says:
    I really had to think twice when reading 'plumbed-in-water'. Was this a new super H2O that had passed me by? Then it dawned on me, good old 'tap water'! Orwell must be turning in his grave.

  • 3 August 2018 at 6:41pm
    gary morgan says:
    The more lip-service is given to making Mental Health a national priority, the less is done and the more rubbish comes from both universities and DfE on the matter. This piece vindicates everything adumbrated by Stefan Collini in your organ including his excoriation of the bureaucrats lamentable prose and the adoption of a ghastly prose employing 'wellness' and worse.
    The worst thing is one can plot an inverse correlation between the guff pronounced vaunting Mental Health and anything actually being done. Why the academy should adopt the langue du bois of business is beyond me. "Innovative management solutions" I expect to read in Private Eye. Perhaps I will. They are the very last place to find an answer to what are difficult issues, where "plumbed-in water" is supposed to fool anyone.

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