Every University should have a Mental Health Policy

It is paramount that universities make it their mandate to safeguard, protect and uphold students’ rights and create mentally healthy environments.

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In 2017, I wrote a blog piece for HuffPost regarding the need for mental health to be prioritised at universities and colleges from a South African perspective. Two years later, after research and engagements with students around the world, I believe a global, all-inclusive perspective needs to be applied to this serious matter.

Mental Illnesses and issues involving mental health have become an international crisis which is often ignored and neglected from a state/national level to a local level. This is notable at universities and colleges where there has been a serious lack of attention to identifying, treating and assisting students who are suffering from mental illnesses.

A study conducted by the University of Cape Town in South Africa, in 2017, revealed that at least 12% of university students experience “moderate to severe symptoms of depression”. In the USA, studies revealed that 17% of university students suffer from depression, whilst in the UK, it is reported that at least 27% students have a mental health problem.

With these concerning figures which point to mental health issues increasing every year, it should be a priority for universities, colleges and governments to take a proactive approach in countering the crisis we have in our learning spaces. It is clear that the stigma and ignorance behind mental health are the reasons for the lack of action that has been dominating campuses around the world.

In the United Kingdom and South Africa, both countries, and their students, seem to face similar problems in terms of receiving, or not receiving, the needed treatment and care for mental health. “Financial constraints” as put by Gianmarco Raddi has been the repeated excuse in both nations as to why more services have not been made available for students. As a result, students are often added to a list where they are ranked according to how “bad their mental health is” in order to determine whether they are a priority.

It must be noted that the United Nations, in its Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, has highlighted the importance of creating inclusive, empowering environments for all people, and this must also apply to universities and colleges. In addition to this, the basic human rights of human dignity and access to healthcare should not be ignored. Rather, they should be prioritised by any institution.

Despite the concerning reports, many groups are stepping up to take initiative against the mental health crisis. Universities UK, a collective of universities in the United Kingdom have committed to prioritise mental health awareness and the implementation of better healthcare systems and protocols at tertiary education institutions.

In South Africa, universities such as the University of Cape Town have adopted mental health policies that assist in creating a more comforting, accessible learning and living environment for students. Currently, Stellenbosch University has a student led mental health task team that aim to have a policy adopted by the end of 2019.

Following the UN’s recommendations and the positive results coming from universities that do have mental health policies, it should be a mandate of all universities and colleges around the world to investigate mental health issues on their campuses and work towards forming uplifting, effective mental health policies to protect and safeguard the well-being of students. It cannot be that universities are failing to produce qualified and skilled workers, or are producing broken people.

There is no doubt that strives have been made to tackle the mental health crisis that we are facing worldwide. From a university perspective, it is clear that a large group of students are battling and facing mental health issues that hamper their academic and social endeavours. Thus, it is up to leaders, structures and institutions to pool their resources together and find a sustainable solution that will uphold students’ human dignity and create a mentally

Luke Waltham is a human rights and mental health activist. He is a law student, writer and blogger, and is currently Chairperson of the United Nations Association of South Africa at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

Luke Waltham is a BA Law Graduate. He is a BA Honours student and has been an activist for transformation, social justice and human rights. #BTSARMY

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