We Need to Talk About Student Mental Health More, Not Less

Two shiny silver cans attached by string for use as a childhood telephone


The hullaballoo over the increase in takeup of student mental health services has a disturbing undertone. Alan Percy’s recent Guardian article on the subject calls for a “nuanced” approach to the subject, then fails to provide it.

He analyses the possible causes of the rise in demand for services, assuming that most of these mental health problems are reactive, i.e. that students develop them as a result of stress – rather than arriving at university with long-term mental health problems. He then applies a ‘sick role theory’ and ‘labelling theory’ perspective to the problem. Students with mental health problems are accepting deviant roles that society should discourage, he claims. He assumes that stigma will follow them permanently if they accept labels like ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’ while they are at university.

In fact, UCAS statistics suggest that at least some of this rise in demand is due to an increase in university applications by students with pre-existing mental health problems.They chart a large increase in students with mental health problems applying to university, from 1,483 in 2008 to 5,170 in 2013.

Percy represents these students as a problem. But there is an alternative. We could think of mental health problems not as deviance, but as difference.

So let’s briefly look at the two sociological theories that Percy draws on in his article – ‘sick role’ theory and labelling theory:

– The ‘sick role’ theory was devised by Talcott Parsons, who was interested in the way sickness functions within society. He argued that society allows people the right to depart from ‘normal’ social roles for a short period, but that they have a social obligation to work towards recovery. Those who fail to get well are cast in a deviant role. As Mike Oliver puts it, “In this model, the ‘sick role’ involves being compliant and wanting to get well. This can make people with incurable conditions, including disabled people who are classified as sick, seem to be deviant.”

Labelling theory states that those given a label by society – like “illness” or “depression” – will live up to that label and keep it over the long term, allowing it to shape their lives. This is why Percy believes that labelling students with depression or another mental health problem is problematic. He does not consider that there are many students who arrive at university with long-term mental health problems already diagnosed, nor that some students may find medical explanations useful as part of their toolbox of coping strategies, through which they adapt to a world that is reluctant to accept them.

Disability studies takes a different approach to disability and impairment. The social model of disability is much less focused on the individual than either of these theories. Instead of looking at what happens if an individual fails to adjust to social standards of normalcy, it focuses on society and the way it treats people with impairments and chronic illnesses. There is a shared understanding here that health is at least partly socially constructed. Everyone is different – and disability theory represents impairments and long-term illnesses as difference, not deviance.

It’s true that mental health problems are a negative experience for most people. But they don’t have to mean the end of people’s education. Many people with neurological differences live ordinary, fulfilled lives – and are capable of doing well at university. But we need a good support service at university, so that we can access higher education on a level playing field with other students who don’t face these difficulties.

We should be talking about the things that prevent us from succeeding. Students with mental health problems are too often told to suffer in silence. Talking and campaigning about the current difficulties in university mental health services is important, if we want more students with mental health problems to do well at university.

More and more people with mental health problems, and other long-term illnesses and impairments, are going to university. What’s more, mental health problems are slowly being normalised – people are starting to talk about them, to seek help where it is needed, and to accept themselves in all their diversity. This is a very good thing. But we can’t ignore the effects of these increases for student health and counselling services. These services desperately need more funding, or the numbers of disabled and chronically ill students at university will stop rising.

We’re not portraying university as “as a hell on earth with no support available.” We’re calling for an improvement in underfunded and overstretched services that are badly needed by students who simply want to be able to access education alongside their peers.

Naomi Lawson Jacobs (@naomi_jacobs) is a disabled PhD student at SOAS, University of London. She is researching disability and religion.

Image: ‘Communication is key’ by Sebastien Wiertz (via flickr). Licensed under CC BY 2.0


4 responses to “We Need to Talk About Student Mental Health More, Not Less

  1. Pingback: Fighting to Protect University Mental Health/Counselling Services |·

  2. Pingback: Fighting to Protect University Mental Health/Counselling Services | Uncovering the Roof·

  3. Pingback: Speculative Diction | Mental health in academe: let’s get our stories straight | University Affairs·


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