Mental health has become a buzzword of student politics. “We need to solve the mental health crisis” never fails to receive a round applause. The impression you would take from the NUS conference is that everyone is deeply concerned with the mental health crisis. Even the current right-wing NUS leadership were able to highlight that our current mental health services are under-funded and under-staffed.
This is all true. Some delegates made the point that ‘puppy petting’ and ‘nail polish’ sessions are a pathetic response from student unions to this deepening crisis, and it’s obvious that these measures make no strides towards helping students who are suffering from mental health problems.
However, the most glaring point missing from this discussion at the NUS conference was that the mental health crisis is not some accidental phenomenon, but rather the product of a crisis of capitalism that is fuelling student debt, extortionate rent and poor learning conditions. Most students have to wait weeks before being granted a counselling session at university. All sessions afterwards are then limited and dependent on availability. Whilst capitalism maintains its stranglehold over our education system it will not be able to provide any meaningful solutions to rising rates of depression and suicide.
All of the delegates were passionate about mental health, as it affects thousands of us, but we must convert this energy into rage against a profit driven system. Mental health is a political issue that won’t be changed through isolated “awareness-raising” campaigns. If the NUS leaders are genuine in their concern about this crisis, they would use all the power of the NUS to rid us of this Tory government implementing austerity.
Anxiety and depression is on the rise precisely because capitalism puts insurmountable pressure on students, and it is our physical and mental health that suffers as a result. When students are having to choose between eating dinner or paying bills, how will they be able to grow and flourish in education? To develop culture and learning, we need a society in which housing and healthcare are not a constant source of anxiety and stress. This is why we stand for full living grants for all students.
We cannot separate our mental well-being from our surrounding material conditions. The NUS cannot seriously tackle this crisis until it takes the fight to the root of the problem. Only once we put Marxism at the heart of the NUS and turn it into a fighting socialist union will it be able to put an end to this mental health crisis.
by Fiona Lali, SOAS NUS delegate