Students in the Degree Factory: Alienation and Mental Health

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Mental health is in crisis across the world. This is felt acutely in New Zealand too. The Mental Health Commissioner reported that nearly half of New Zealanders will live with mental illness and/or addiction at some point during their lifetime. This is a rate of nearly one-in-five New Zealanders who live with mental illness or addiction each year. Anxiety and depression is high among youth. It is estimated that one-in-five will have experienced some mental distress by the age of 18. The youth suicide rate remains the highest in the developed world according to research by the Nuffield Trust. For Māori, these rates are even higher. 

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, the funding and support services have not kept up. In 2018 the Health and Disability Commissioner reported that “access to these services has increased by 73% over the past decade while funding has increased by 40%”. The picture in tertiary education is dire. Horror stories continue to emerge about the utter contempt the universities hold towards students. Take the harrowing example from 2018 of Dani Saundry, a student struggling at Victoria University, who was asked to leave her hall of residence after returning from hospital following a suicide attempt. Her story only came to light because she bravely came forward to tell her story in the student magazine Salient. 

More recently, there was the tragic death of Mason Pendrous, a first-year student living in a hall associated with Canterbury University. Coroners could not determine the cause of his death because his body lay decomposing for up to a month. We won’t know if mental health was a factor in his death but what came to light afterwards was the woefully inadequate pastoral care that halls provided. Most halls rely on barely-trained Resident Assistants to identify those who need support.

Early this year, a student from University of Auckland was not allowed to re-enrol because of her mental health problems, despite the fact that she was in her fourth year completing a double major.

Limits of Wellbeing

University and state responses have, in the main, focused on “well-being”. This approach, no matter individual pieces of good advice going along with it, individualises a social problem. It puts the burden of care back onto us as isolated individuals, rather than asking the questions: what is it about work, study, and life right now that is proving so harmful? Why are so many people so alienated? 

Given the mental health crisis, it’s not surprising that well-being has been highlighted as a way to improve mental health. Institutions across the board – from schools, universities, sports teams, and even the Government – have jumped on the well-being wagon. 

And while well-being is undeniably important, the capitalist logic of well-being boils down to this: well-being is down to the individual. In other words, your mental health is your responsibility. Victoria University’s student space – the Bubble – is a case in point. Their website boasts that it is a student-dedicated space “for personal downtime, meeting friends, and seeking advice from Bubble leaders.” The Bubble leaders run workshops on meditation for you to manage your stress, how to manage your time, how to eat healthily, how to ‘say hi to your neighbour’. Leaving aside the fact that the Bubble was created by taking away genuinely student-run space controlled by the Student Union, the mantra from the university that we can meditate our stress away is patronising and offensive.

This approach focus on individuals’ lifestyles entirely misses the point of the huge social factors that bear down on students’ lives. Factors such as rent and work all put huge pressure on mental health. These are challenges that the universities would rather not focus on. After all, if you are running education much like a business – with a focus on growth, and students, especially international students, described in the language of markets and customers – why would you pause to consider the impact of business-like decisions and cuts to student autonomous services? Much cheaper simply running pointless workshops putting the blame at individual students.

But social pressures have an enormous contributing factor on health. A 2018 NZ University Student Association survey featured a telling quote from one respondent: “Work (is) making me do too many hours but I can’t quit because then I wouldn’t have enough money to make it through the week… But then I do the hours and I can slowly feel myself getting more stressed and tired, and more behind in my school work.” These are not challenges that smiling to your neighbour or drinking water more regularly can solve.

Capitalism, Mental Health, Class Struggle

We need class, not individual, solutions for mental health. We need to fight for adequate funding and support for mental health service providers. We also need to understand and emphasise the structural way society is organised under capitalism causes serious repercussions for our mental health. 

To fight for more services and for our well-being we need to change the way society is structured currently. And that means we need to fight on a class basis as part of the class struggle. This kind of fight back has already started in the UK. National Survivor User Network is a network that recognises that social inequality is a contributor to poor mental health, and argues that “austerity measures, damaging economic policies, social discrimination and structural inequalities are causing harm to people. We need to challenge this as part of a broader social justice agenda.” 

Lecturer in Sociology David Matthews puts well-being at the heart of the class struggle. He argues that, “Capitalism can never offer the conditions most conducive to achieving mental health. Oppression, exploitation, and inequality greatly repress the true realization of what it means to be human”. He goes on to emphasise that, “opposing the brutality of capitalism’s impact on mental well-being must be central to the class struggle as the fight for socialism is never just one for increased material equality, but also for humanity and a society in which all human needs, including psychological ones, are satisfied”.

As the Marxist professor of social work and social policy Iain Ferguson has argued, “it is the economic and political system under which we live—capitalism—which is responsible for the enormously high levels of mental-health problems which we see in the world today.” The alleviation of mental distress is only possible “in a society without exploitation and oppression”.

Real action on mental health would involve increases on student allowance and unemployment benefits, free doctors and counselling care, and a challenge to the alienating, business model of tertiary education. Fighting student unions, genuinely student-run and free from university meddling, need to be a part of that. The system that is causing so much distress will not give solutions to that distress. Something is very wrong in our world currently: fighting for some of the immediate reforms needed now to alleviate distress can give us the confidence and courage to take on the root causes of alienation, and to build a society based on genuine well-being for all.