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  • Tackling Elitism

Elitism and mental health at The University of Edinburgh

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

By Sharan Atwal and Orfhlaith McDevitt

Almost two-thirds (63%) of students in the UK have experienced a worsening in their mental health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. However students from low-income backgrounds are significantly more likely to experience poor mental health than their middle income and affluent classmates. Prior to the pandemic, ‘children and adults living in households in the lowest 20% income quartile in Great Britain, were 2-3 times more likely to develop mental health problems’ . With the economic consequences of the pandemic disproportionately impacting those in the lowest income brackets, the subsequent effects on their mental health and wellbeing only amplify pre-existing inequalities.

Our recent research into experiences of widening participation students at the University of Edinburgh has shown that the current mental health crisis at UK universities is multifaceted: exasperated by issues around financial access to mental health services, diversity of help provided, quality of care for students without the means to access private mental health care, and certain services feeling particularly exclusive and unwelcoming for PoC students.

Responses in our recent study found that the quality of care provided to widening participation students failed to meet the needs of students accessing services at the University. One interviewee stated that after contacting the University Mental Health service due to a death in the family during their studies they were “highly disappointed with the treatment I got there”. Some students indicated that while they were able to access the help that they needed, doing so caused significant financial strain or required months on a waiting list while their mental health worsened.

Another response highlighted the negative childhood experiences many widening participation students carry with them to University that make them more at-risk to poor mental health. Despite this, “there are no appropriate services on the increasingly privatised NHS, and austerity wiped out all kinds of social support that would have been useful growing up”. Additionally this interviewee stated that “violent crime, teen pregnancy, disability, suicide, adultification, substance misuse - all issues that disproportionately affect working class students growing up … have a devastating impact on mental health”. Understanding conflicts at the centre of intersections between poor mental health and social class is key to improving services offered to students from a widening participation background at the university .

Whilst socio-economic class greatly influences the support accessible to students, people of colour also face many additional barriers to accessing mental health services appropriate to their circumstances. Being poorly understood by a white therapist who cannot fully comprehend their experiences, including the struggle of dealing with and navigating racist environments has a huge impact on long-term mental health. In our study we found that some students of colour were put off certain private therapy clinics due to bad experiences of friends. The lack of availability of people of colour therapists can change the way individuals address their mental health. This intersection makes it difficult to navigate conversations about topics specific to race as well as class.

There are a few charities and places that have been suggested by individuals which have helped them look after their mental health and wellbeing whilst at University. Of course none of this is a substitute for therapy and it is so important for you to pursue that avenue if you think it will benefit you.

  • Edinburgh Nightline ; is an incredible charity, it is a non-judgemental listening, emotional support and information service, run by students, for students. They run a call service and an instant messenger service open from 8pm until 8am every night of term.

  • Samaritans is a registered charity which aims to provide emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide throughout Great Britain and Ireland

  • Apps which focus on providing guided meditations and relaxation techniques include Calm and Headspace

  • Amina is an amazing helpline that provides a signposting service for Muslim and BME women (Mon-Fri 10am - 4pm)

  • Mental Health Assessment Centre is a 24 hour service you can call to get in touch and seek advice from a mental health nurse at (0131 286 8137)

  • CoCo is a social enterprise that supports people through counselling, they offer subsidised rates for students to make counselling affordable to all


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