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Our lives, our university

The university is an academic institution, and as such there is no question that we are all here to learn. Students though, are people and within people’s lives anything can happen on a scale that covers all human experience. There is no such thing as a problem that is confined to one part of our life. Our problems are not just distractions from our academic work, they are our lives, and in many cases bigger and more important parts of our lives.

A fellow student, who recently went to see their academic advisor in order to discuss their performance for the previous year, was simply told that they must try not to be distracted from their academic life by their personal life. This is just one example of the university’s limited and reductionist views on our personal lives. It reflects the wider view in our society that emotional and mental difficulties are things to be ignored, things to be ‘gotten over’. It also suggested to me that they believe that to strive to learn and understand in the academic sphere is more important than an attempt to understand yourself.

We spend at least three years of our lives at university, during which time a lot can happen in our personal lives. For this reason we have the student support network to support us through our time studying at Sussex. However the use of ‘network’ in describing the ‘student support’ available is not representative of the service we receive. Certainly it is true that there are a range of different services available to students, what is missing however is not only the links between them, but any real feeling that students are comprehensively supported, and their difficulties understood by the university as a whole. There may be a counselling service but open and true attempts to understand the difficulties within a student’s life are few and far between. So much so that it suggests a complete and voluntary negligence of our needs on the part of our University.

For example the University’s attitude towards mitigating evidence is intimidating to students, as it forces students to prove that their personal lives have impacted on their academic progress. The student must question themselves, asking ‘Do I deserve this?’, ‘Are my problems bad enough?’, thus making them question their own feelings. This creates an atmosphere where those who need and deserve the support of the university are made to feel that they must quantify, judge and justify their difficulties and feelings to the university. These are people already at their lowest ebb and the process does not at any point inspire feelings of support and understanding.

Only students who recognise themselves (and are recognised by the university), as having sufficiently ‘bad problems’, have explained to them in full the process of mitigating evidence. And even then, in my experience it is seen only as a last resort. Therefore the majority of students aren’t fully aware of the process of how to apply for it or even if they can. This alienates the majority of students, turning it into something inaccessible, something that ‘other people worse off do’, and not just a process to help students through difficult times of any sort. Many students may not even have got to the point where they feel comfortable to admit they are having difficulties and may need support, but to get to that point requires an atmosphere of openness and support, something which this whole system lacks. It is true that the university does make the availability of the counselling service well known, but this is undermined by the rest of the system. Also, the limited provision of a 10 week course only really functions as introductory to the process of counselling and dealing with your difficulties.

You could argue that the university is an academic institution and has no obligation to provide any form of mental health care. But the reason that we have an existing, if limited, counselling service and a doctor’s surgery is that without these, our university would be grossly neglecting the needs of its own students, the students who make the university what it is and pay thousands in fees during their studies here.

A network should involve a number of intrinsically linked services, both bureaucratically and in terms of understanding of the individual involved. From an academic institution such as Sussex we deserve better, a more holistic and realistic representation of our lives and an approach to support that embodies this. If the university thinks that this article is not a reflection of how they really feel towards their students, then they have kept those feelings mostly to themselves. This is how it can feel to be a student here, so the university should now be asking itself, ‘what can be done’?

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