Universities are really really really really bad at mental health. Like really unbelievably bad. They just have no idea, hiding behind their inflexible rules and procedures as they ignore the fact that they are dealing with real people and individual circumstances. Writing things like “we have to apply the rules fairly and equally” displaying a maddening ignorance of indirect discrimination and disgraceful lack of basic common sense. Confusing ‘there’s nothing we can do’ with ‘there’s nothing we want to do’, claiming they mean the former when really they mean the latter because they cannot be bothered to get it right; they cannot be bothered to accept that people are different and therefore need individualised solutions that take into account personal circumstances. That would mean actually thinking what is the best solution in this case and that requires effort. That requires actually bloody caring about the students they teach when really they care about their research and that’s about it. It is alarming how badly wrong they get it, how well-meaning, apparently and supposedly intelligent people, simply do not understand how things they say will be interpreted.
Starting with the brute bureaucracy. The 8 million different departments dealing with seemingly the same topic that never communicate because that would be too easy; that would be too simple; that would make too much damn sense; because otherwise how would universities force students to navigate an impossibly complicated system to ensure that they can never actually ask for counselling or mental health support or disability assistance because not even G_D knows who the hell they should contact. And then when you have contacted someone and sorted out, say, counselling, you’re entitled to four sessions because everyone in the entire world knows that you’re cured after four hours of talking about your childhood and why would anyone need more time, that’s just absurd. And then, you need a letter from your therapist saying you saw him or her but that letter needs to be current if you need to rely on it in an extenuating circumstances claim but how can it be current if you’re only allowed four sessions and they were 6 months ago but you’re anxious now and your family member died now and that’s why you need extra time on your assignment but the letter is 6 months old so it doesn’t count anymore and even though it says you’re not better because you may never be better because what does better even mean, it won’t help you now. So your claim is rejected or a decision is deferred until you can submit more evidence, more evidence that you literally cannot obtain because you are not allowed to see the counsellor again and you've been on the NHS waiting list since you were born. So you email again and there’s nothing they can do or want to do. So you’re screwed basically but it’s okay because every else is screwed or they would be screwed if they were like you or the same as you but they aren’t but anyway shut up and stop complaining. Complaining, because that’s what it is. And then it turns out that you should have contacted the mental health department not the counselling department because they deal with this type of mental health but you never knew this when you applied because you didn’t realise there were two departments because why would there be? And it turns out that they have a 6-month waiting list but that’s too late because you need the help now or well actually last year when you first contacted the wrong department who didn’t tell you to contact the right department, so what’s the point now anyway? But you email anyway knowing it’s pointless and fruitless, hoping for the best and hoping to be proved wrong because you don’t want to feel abandoned and irrelevant and if only people stopped making you feel that way it would be better.
And rules are blindly followed because rules are fair, right? Because if there’s a rule, it exists for a reason and it promotes fairness because then everyone is treated equally so there’s certainty across cases and that’s fair. Except it isn’t fair. Because rules don’t take into account circumstances and this is the criticism of Kant, right, because he’d have you tell the axe murderer where your children are, because never lie, except maybe sometimes, only sometimes, lying is a good thing to do and we should lie because axe murderers do exist. But rules are certain and certainty is fair a lot of the time but not always because some people have individual circumstances like they literally can’t get into a building without wheelchair access and obviously the fact the class has to be in that building is the same for everyone but only one person loses out, and even though there’s a rule, maybe you need to change the rules or soften the edges because people who need a wheelchair need to be able to get into buildings where their classes are. Or, if class had to be on a Friday afternoon and everyone had to attend the rule is fair and equally applied but it’s the religious Jew that misses all those classes so maybe the rule could be changed. But no, because another jew who is less religious will go to those classes so why won’t you, you’re both Jews but only you have an issue so really why should we change the rules, you should be more like this other Jew who has no issues because that’s how it works, you check Jew on a form and you’re all the same and have the same needs so the rules are fair because this Jew can come to class. So stop complaining, because your classes are important too and yes you have a religion but you also have class and this other Jew has religion and he or she is okay. So the rule might be fair and it might be equally applied and everyone might subscribe to the same rules but they can still discriminate against individuals and you need to be aware of that and mental health is no different because sometimes you’re fine and sometimes you have a panic attack and can’t move so you don’t move and other times you can’t speak so you don't speak. So you can’t go to class or don’t want to but you try your best because the rules say that everyone has to go to class, and that’s fine, except sometimes you just can’t and it’s not the same as that other person with mental health problems because maybe they can go to class but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an issue and it doesn’t mean that you don’t either. It means the rules need to be different, to take those circumstances into account so that everyone is catered for and yes that’s hard and expensive and difficult and time-consuming but people are killing themselves because they feel alone, people are hurting themselves because they feel no one understands. And I don’t think it’s true, I think people do understand and you’re never alone but I’ve felt alone and I’ve felt misunderstood and like no one cares so I know how it feels and I empathise and I sympathise and more needs to be done.
And then there are the emails you receive. The ‘stop looking for special treatment’ that just means ‘stop complaining’ and the ‘we’ve been very supportive’ which means ‘stop complaining’ and the ‘there’s nothing we can do’ which means ‘stop complaining’ and the ‘this is wasting time and energy’ which means ‘stop complaining.’ So you do. You stop complaining because it’s true, you do want special treatment. But that’s only because you need it because the words jump around on the page when you sit for too long or your grandmother just died and you know what you’re really really damn upset and don’t want to deal with that essay right now because life goes on and is more important than Descartes’ views on mind-body dualism. And you stop, because they did give you that extension last time and you think maybe you’re just being ungrateful forgetting that you had to jump through 23 million hoops just to get that extension and it arrived three weeks late so it was meaningless anyway. And then you think maybe there is nothing they can do, forgetting there’s always something they can do, they just don’t want to do it because that means actually paying attention and helping you and that takes time and effort. And, well, yes it is taking time and energy so you stop, forgetting it takes more time and energy to deal with their system at every turn, the system that doesn’t see a human and doesn’t see a person but a nuisance with fingers that can type. So you go away, quietly, hoping that no one will trample on you and that it’ll be okay but it won’t be because that’s not how life works, you need to speak up but you’re tired and your voice hurts and you’re sick of fighting because it’s really not getting anywhere because they don’t care and they don’t listen. And they keep sending emails that you misunderstand because they’ve made no effort to understand you and emails that make you feel worse and make you feel more anxious because no one stops for a minute to remember that they’re dealing with a real person, not a computer, but a person with feelings and emotions. Maybe we should phrase this a bit more nicely. Because it’s not their fault. No one ever thinks that. And that’s the problem.
And then there's the ignorance. There's the ignorance that says mental health works like physical health, that a broken mind looks like a broken arm and takes a few weeks to heal and being able to use your mind is evidence that it's no longer broken anymore. Except, it doesn't. Sometimes you can't move or breathe or think and sometimes you can and mental health is not physical health, it's different and looks different and works differently but, obviously, if you submitted a piece of work it means you're fine and that piece of work is fine. Right? Well, no. It's not the same, it's different and needs different systems and different fixes. There's the ignorance that you are complaining and, more crucially, you want to be complaining, that you're just obviously a difficult person who enjoys being difficult. So you crawl back under the bed and cuddle yourself, rocking gently as you cry and wonder maybe it is just you, maybe it's your fault, maybe you should be easier if only you could be easier things would be better. And you want to be easier, you wish you could be easier because despite everything, despite the lack of empathy and the lack of sympathy, despite being made to feel like an inconvenience and a nuisance, you can still empathise with them. You blame yourself because you know how difficult it is to deal with mental health because you've been struggling for 20+ years and you haven't figured it out so how could they figure it out, you don't even know what you want so how should they know? So you try and let them off, blame yourself because obviously it's your fault, everything is your fault...except, it's not your fault and you need to stop blaming yourself but that requires other people to stop blaming you as well. But the institutions won't stop. They keep blaming you, stop complaining, stop asking for better treatment, go away. It just makes it worse, and worse, and worse.
it’s an easy fix. Listen. Empathise. Stop hiding behind rules, they invariably ignore circumstances and treat people unfairly. They invariably assume all cases can be treated alike. Employ more staff. Care more about students and less about research. This isn’t rocket science. And even if it were, universities are full of people that understand rocket science. So they should know better. And they should do better.