The collegiate system offers unparalleled levels of physical and emotional support to its students. The sense of community fostered through living and working in a small and close-knit environment is central to our personal development here. Whether we are experiencing short-term stress, anxiety or low mood, or suffer from more long-term mental health issues, we have a support network of friends, peers, and academic and non-academic staff, all of whom are willing to help us. This often goes underappreciated, particularly when compared with the faceless anonymity that can come with going to large city universities. In the aftermath of the tragic recent suicides at Bristol University, where seven students have killed themselves in the past 18 months, the importance of helping those experiencing issues relating to their mental health is finally being recognised.
In response to these events, live-in mentors and student support centres are being brought into the main halls of residence, to provide more immediate welfare provision to students there. This perhaps creates a living and working environment more reflective of our own here at Oxford – one we should be proud of. The University of Oxford spends more per student on mental health services than any other UK university. However, these statistics offer little comfort to those who have spent several weeks waiting for a one-to-one appointment, or are on a waiting list for one of the various group courses offered by the central counselling service. My focus, however, is not on the quality of the support offered by the University as a whole, but rather how individual colleges, whom students often turn to first for help, are tackling issues related to mental health. When deciding on which college to apply to, our decisions are usually influenced by the architecture, location, facilities, and, arguably most importantly, the food. Welfare provisions usually do not feature on our list of criteria. And why should they? Many of us simply assume that colleges offer the same levels and range of support.
However, the reality is that each college has a unique welfare network. Most have a base level of support services available to their students. JCR held positions like welfare officers provide the vital first port of call. Similarly, peer supporters, who have taken 30 hours of training in active listening, can also be found in the smallest permanent private halls to those colleges topping the Norrington Table.The disparity lies in resources additional to these, like in-house counsellors. This is something the University Counselling Service are keen to push. As one of the welfare officers who saw my own college hire a university counsellor, I am familiar with the arguments made both for and against them. The benefits include far shorter waiting times, typically less than a week,in comparison to up to a month with the central service. There’s also in-college access, often an influential factor for those who feel overwhelmed by the lengthy counselling service application or daunted by a trip to the counselling centre. Many colleges also choose to ensure their junior deans are trained for welfare situations. Some pay for them to receive training in a skill set similar to those of peer supporters, which serve to help students out of normal working hours, or in times of crisis.
Colleges like St. Hugh’s, where they have not received this training, sees the burden of responsibility fall on welfare officers and peer supporters, who despite their dedication to their roles, are still students with other commitments. What should be noted is the seeming lack of correlation between college wealth and these additional mental health provisions. It appears that if a college believes these additional resources are necessary, they will provide them – regardless of the extra cost. In a term where the widening disparity of college endowments has been questioned, perhaps we should not necessarily be asking how much money colleges have but rather what they are spending their wealth on. Moreover, we should ask whether it is being used to benefit those the college is principally meant to serve: the student body. Somerville, Keble, and St. Cross may not be the wealthiest of colleges but they recognise there is more to student satisfaction than portraits, grants, and perfectly kept quads. They have taken the steps to provide additional welfare resources, both in and out of normal working hours. It may be hard to quantify the success of these additional efforts in statistics.
However, the reassurance and peace of mind offered through the mere presence of a counsellor and welfare-trained junior deans, is surely worth the additional spending. We should berate these inequalities in mental health provisions between colleges in the same way we would criticise pay gap inequality or inadequate outreach efforts. All too frequently, colleges only make changes when provoked into action by their students. They should recognise that it is their duty of responsibility to ensure students have access to the support they require before they realise the need for it, especially at one of the country’s most demanding universities. All the more shame on those that can comfortably afford these resources, yet still fail to deliver them.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, you can speak to someone immediately by calling the Samaritans at 116-123.