In the 2017-18 academic year there were 95 students at UK universities who took their own lives. 10 suicides have taken place just at the University of Bristol since October 2016.
Meanwhile, there are five times as many first-year students across the country now reporting mental health issues than there was ten years ago. And this doesn’t even take into account the problems of deteriorating mental health amongst staff in higher education (HE) institutions.
The crisis in mental health is affecting all layers in society. The HE sector is no exception to this, with students and staff bearing the brunt of increased pressures.
Suicide, self-harm and mental health are serious issues that need to be addressed in a sober manner. The fact that the Daily Mail and the Sun are willing to use the tragic passing of a 19-year-old student to score political points, therefore, is nothing short of disgusting.
In the past week, a number of national newspapers have picked up on the completion of an internal report from the University of Liverpool (UoL) into the death of one of its students.
Ceara Thacker was a first-year philosophy student who took her life on 11th May this year. This was after years of struggling to cope with complex mental health issues, and after having sought out help and support from the local NHS Trust and the UoL student services.
The internal report demonstrates that, as is often the case in these situations, there were number of contributing factors which took place leading up to this tragic event.
In applying to study at the university, Ceara disclosed her history of troubles on her UCAS form. The disability advice guidance team then got in contact with her to discuss further how they could support her in her studies.
After Ceara directly sought support from the university in November, several attempts were made, both by her and the staff at the university, to set up meetings to establish some form of care. Due to a number of factors these fell through. No further communication was had with the support team until February, when a first suicide attempt was made.
The NHS mental health care trust then became involved as she attended the local A&E. More attempts were made to establish support before the tragedy of 11th May took place. By this point, support was too late in coming.
Ceara was undoubtedly let down by the system. She fell through the cracks that exist as part of the dislocation and underfunding of services. But to blame ordinary university staff or striking academics, as the Daily Mail and the Sun attempt to do, is at best naïve and at worst maliciously dishonest.
System to blame
I do not pretend to speak on behalf of Ceara, her family or close friends. I genuinely apologise to anyone who might read this and get upset. But it saddens and enrages me to think that she, or anyone else in a similar situation, would be cynically used by the right-wing press in this way.
This is especially the case since Ceara supported the UCU strike action earlier in the year, as well as those staff who these reactionary rags are now trying to attack and smear in such a manner.
Ceara and I were in the same philosophy classes together, and she had requested to have her name put on the open letter students had written to the vice-chancellor of the university to express our support for our striking staff.
Strike action is not the cause of the tragic passing of this young woman. The staff are not the cause of her death. When there is a systemic failure to offer care to the most vulnerable in society, it is the system that is to blame for such a tragedy.
“The government’s five-year plan to improve mental health services came with an additional £1.6 billion. We’re now over two years into this plan, but after years of underfunding, we’re still a long way from seeing everyone get the help and support they need when they need it.”
Instead of blaming well-meaning, underfunded and under-resourced staff, we should use this example as a way of further emphasising the shortfalls that exist in mental health care across the country. We need to try to find solutions to the real problems.
Capitalism the problem
Iain Thacker, Ceara’s father, in talking about his family’s heartache, has hinted at where the responsibility for the mental health crisis in HE lies.
“Universities are taking thousands and thousands of pounds of their parents in fees, paying vice-chancellors vast sums, but students aren’t getting the welfare services they deserve. She was absolutely let down by the University.”
When Janet Beer, the UoL vice-chancellor, is earning £300k+ each year but is attacking the pensions, pay and conditions of staff at the university: that is part of the problem.
When the executive board at UoL spend over £113k (over a three year period), in expenses paid for first class travel around the world - whilst threatening rank-and-file staff with redundancies and whilst making cuts to student services: that is part of the problem.
When the NHS is being privatised bit-by-bit and mental health services are being decimated by a government of the rich intent on providing ever greater profits to their friends in big business: that is part of the problem.
The University of Liverpool is not alone in offering such examples. You can look at any HE institution in the country and you would no doubt see a similar picture.
The problem is capitalism. And until we sweep this system into the dustbin of history, I am sad to say, we will continue to lose young people to the tragedy of suicide.