Comment & Analysis
Nov 5, 2018

Awareness Campaigns Are Not Enough. College Must Invest in Mental Health

TCDSU should focus its efforts not on awareness campaigns but on lobbying for increased investment in key services, writes Alanna MacNamee.

Alanna MacNameeColumnist
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Anna Moran for The University Times

Do you feel woozy after one too many americanos outside the Arts Block? Is your relationship with your sister fraught at best? Do you find yourself surreptitiously picking your nose when no one is watching? Are you harbouring a disproportionate hatred towards the downstairs part of the Lecky library, with its absence of plugs and excess of BESS students? If you answered yes to the above you may be suffering variously from caffeine intoxication disorder, sibling relational problem, rhinotillexomania and lower-Lecky fatigue disorder.

Ok, so I made the last one up. But the rest are, in fact, real disorders with real diagnostic criteria in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I find this really hard to get my head around – as well as pretty scary because of how it speaks to the complete confusion and incomprehensibility that so often surrounds mental illness.

There is a myriad of problems around how we currently handle mental illness. But that’s pretty much to be expected, I suppose. Because here’s the thing about mental illness: it’s in the mind. It’s almost impossible to quantify, and harder still to understand. I’ve deliberately been rather flippant about some of the disorders above. Rhinotillexomania (the nose-picking disorder) sufferers, for instance, aren’t medicated because they pick their noses. They are medicated because they pick their noses until their facial bones are exposed.

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Just how do we draw the line between a socially questionable action like picking your nose, and a full-blown debilitating illness? It’s a fine line to draw, and one that we as a society are pretty ill equipped for. Pharmaceutical companies, doctors, therapists … they all stand to make a large fortune off the back of made-up illnesses and neuroses. And that’s not to mention the fact that increased fears around mental illness can actually increase our anxiety and paranoia. I’m certainly guilty of diagnosing myself with a dizzying array of conditions thanks to internet service Web MD, and have been known to ring my mum to ask whether she has been hiding the fact that I most certainly have some kind of social disorder from me my entire life (thank you psycom.net/quizzes. At least someone’s telling the truth).

Mental illness is often, by its nature, diagnosed by way of the sufferer’s own testimony. For example, someone suffering from bulimia nervosa may present with no apparent physical symptoms so that their admission to treatment is predicated solely on what they choose to tell a consulting psychiatrist. Their testimony could be entirely fabricated: a doctor has no fail-safe way of knowing exactly what goes in their patient’s mind. This can make it difficult to acknowledge as a real and very serious sickness.

In her book Prozac Nation, writer Elizabeth Wurzel speaks of presenting at the Harvard health centre seeking an exemption from an exam on the basis of her mental state. She writes that “the staff never say no to anyone who doesn’t want to take an exam for any reason because the last time they did that the guy killed himself”. This sums up exactly the frustrating nature of dealing with mental illnesses. It’s impossible to determine authenticity – and trying to do so might just be fatal.

College should be blamed for a clear lack of funding, lack of investment and lack of services for mental illness

So mental illness is really a very difficult issue to understand. And it’s an issue that is particularly pressing for us as students – even more so than the general population. A recent study by Harvard Medical School found that 20 per cent of students reported suicidal ideation, while one in 10 had attempted suicide and one in five had self-harmed. Closer to home, a 2015 study in the UK found that 78 per cent of students experienced mental health issues that year, with a third of respondents reporting suicidal ideation. There was a 46 per cent increase in students who are registered with disability services in higher education institutions in Ireland reporting mental health issues in 2017.

We are in crisis then. And perhaps it’s not altogether surprising, given the pressure-cooker environment of college, with its dual social and academic pressures. What can make things even worse is the fact that university is supposed to be the promised land, a place where you have fun, mix with like-minded people, have your Marxist phase and eat cereal for dinner every night for a week. It can be soul-crushing to find in university not the solution, but the same old – or worse – problem. College lets you reinvent yourself. It lets you swap your Joni jeans for Tola Vintage Vetements-style sportswear, but it can’t fix what’s broken inside. College can’t make you not you.

But just how can we address this difficult-to-understand problem of mental illness among students? How do we go about tackling what Hillary Clinton has rather excellently described as “a sleeping sickness of the soul”?

Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union’s (TCDSU) mental health campaigns are not a bad start. But it’s important to bear in mind that it is just that: a start. Raising awareness can reduce stigma and spark up conversations, but it is, on its own, most emphatically not enough.

What we need are services for getting help. I was pretty shocked to find that the next available appointment for a consultation – a consultation, mind, not a counselling session proper – with the Student Counselling Service was, when consulted on Monday, not available until 22 days later. This is not to fault the service, who are doing stellar work in the face of a huge and growing problem. It is to fault College for a clear lack of funding, lack of investment and lack of services for mental illness. Investment, not awareness, is where the TCDSU’s energies ought to be directed.

We should not tend to our mental health only when we are in crisis: it should be a constant project so that, in the event of a crisis, we actually have the tools and skills to ride it out

It was great to see workshops and classes being made available as part of this year’s mental health week, but again this is something that really ought to be available always, not just for one week in the year. Quite apart from clinical mental illness, we need to think about general mental health and wellbeing, which is an ongoing project for each and every one of us. Just as we stay mindful of physical health, be it eating, sleeping, the gym or even toothbrushing, we ought to also keep up good mental health habits and routines. That’s why I’d like to see more services like yoga classes and breakfasts made available on an ongoing, rather than a once-off, basis. We should not tend to our mental health only when we are in crisis: it should be a constant project so that, in the event of a crisis, we actually have the tools and skills to ride it out.

Nowadays we do talk more about stigma, about conversations, about awareness. But it’s not enough. Awareness without investment or provision of services is about as useful as asking Google whether a disorder exists whose symptoms include excessive worrying about what strangers on the internet are saying about an article you wrote about a smoking ban – in other words, not very.

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