JCR Presidents brand University’s mental health provisions “completely unsustainable”

The letter claimed that "There has been a severe lack of public leadership on this issue from the University governance".

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30 JCR Presidents have signed a letter condemning Oxford University’s current mental health provisions.

Signatories of the letter include the JCR Presidents from Merton, Jesus, LMH, Oriel, Magdalen, Balliol, and St John’s. 

The letter, seen exclusively by Cherwell, reads: “The collegiate system tends toward ad-hoc welfare structures. While at some colleges the welfare team can give much needed emotional support, or referrals to the counselling service or NHS, elsewhere, suitable procedures might be completely lacking.

“This leaves students as the main point of contact for those struggling with mental health problems: the SU found that 85% of JCR welfare reps are called out to crisis situations. This very [sic] troubling, and completely unsustainable.”

Oxford University spends more on mental health services annually per student than any other university in the country, with £1,000,100 spent in 2016/17 according to statistics obtained by Cherwell last year.

Yet there is serious discrepancy between colleges. Only ten out of the 38 Oxford colleges and six PPHs offer an on-site counsellor. Colleges without an on-site counsellor rely on the University’s counselling service, which, according to their website, sees between 11% and 12% of the student population each academic year. 

The University is in the process of developing a ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy’ in order to address the problems surrounding the existing provisions, however there has been recent criticism over the way this has been managed.

In their letter, the Presidents claimed: “There has been a severe lack of public leadership on this issue from the University governance, the sort of leadership that has been demonstrated elsewhere’, referencing the proactive role of Graham Virgo, Cambridge University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education.

They went on to say: “The students we represent have seen no comparable public statements from key University figures, and no recognition of mental health as an institutional priority.

“Furthermore, the lack of student consultation in the creation of this strategy is highly irresponsible at best, and deeply negligent at worst. Common room welfare teams cannot be on the frontlines of the battle, yet remain as peripheries to this conversation.”

All undergraduate colleges appoint Junior Deans, JCR Welfare Representatives, and trained Peer Supporters. In addition, all colleges have chaplains, who are often involved in pastoral care, especially as Welfare Co-ordinators. 

In the letter, the 30 JCR Presidents set out their demands, which included: “The senior leadership of the University, including the Vice Chancellor or Pro-Vice Chancellors, should declare their concern about student mental health. This should ensure that any efforts are transparent, so we can hold them accountable to these promises.”

Addressing their concern over the lack of student involvement in the development of any new mental health strategy, the Presidents called for: “extensive student consultation sessions regarding the implementation of the Mental Health and Wellbeing strategy”

They also requested: “The Vice Chancellor should release a written statement responding directly to the requests made by this letter, which outlines the actions that the University leadership will be undertaking.”

The end of their letter expressed concern for the impact the inadequacies of the current mental health provisions were having on other areas of student support.

“We must recognise that we are indebted to Student Welfare Services, including the Disability Advisory Service and the Counselling Service. We do not want their work to be eroded by overstretched budgets, and overdue by cases unsuited to their expertise.” 

Speaking to Cherwell, Mansfield’s JCR President Saba Shakil said: “The vast disparity in wealth between colleges means that whether or not students receive effective mental health support is a matter of pure chance.”

Shakil added: “The University is beginning to discuss the issue of wealth inequality on a meaningful level, but the impending mental health crisis will not wait for funds to gradually trickle into individual college welfare budgets. 

“What is needed is commitment from the central University to a comprehensive and universal approach to mental health provision across all colleges, ensuring that students who need help can get help, regardless of which college they happened to end up at.”

In a collective statement given to Cherwell, the signatories said: “This letter expresses the frustration of the entire student body about the lack of central university leadership on the issue of mental health. 

“We are committed to supporting the SU’s efforts to lobby the university to make mental health an institutional priority and have a constructive conversation with the Vice-Chancellor and Pro Vice-Chancellors.

“The student voice is an essential part of the dialogue, and together with the SU’s open letter, we hope that the university understands the gravity of the issue.”

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