The student mental health crisis shows no sign of abating: in the year to July 2017, 95 students killed themselves, and many report impossibly threadbare services and overworked staff unable to help. One recent study also found that the UK student suicide rate had risen by 56% in 10 years; a clear sign that something needs to be done.
It is surprising that universities, including Hull, Wolverhampton and Essex are outsourcing mental health services, referring students not to trained, on-campus mental health professionals but to (already comically stretched) NHS pathways. Most noticeable in this shift is the total rebrand of mental health services – which are now, in many universities, simply referred to as ‘wellbeing services’. Counsellors are being asked to reapply for their jobs, now titled ‘wellbeing practitioners’, and a focus is being placed on ‘healthy eating, mindfulness, and stress-relieving activities such as yoga, meditation and campus walks’.
It’s indicative of a wider social trend, with ‘wellbeing’ encroaching not just on our educational institutions (including schools), but also slowly creeping into the workplace.
Many companies now have ‘employee wellbeing programmes’, offering employees everything from yoga, gym subscriptions and subsidised fruit for breakfast.
At first glance, these programmes seem appealing – who doesn’t want a free pomegranate when they get to the office? But for those experiencing severe or chronic mental health problems, such initiatives are not just ineffective but also profoundly insulting, failing to meaningfully engage in any of the realities of mental illness at all.
If you’re so depressed you’re finding it hard to go to work, for example, you don’t need a smoothie or a free flat white: you need structured support from mental health professionals and paid time off. Some companies do offer paid-for therapeutic support. But most do not, using the vague and foggy ‘wellbeing’ umbrella to mask what essentially amounts to a glorified set of employee perks.
It’s easy to see why such programmes are so popular, at least from the perspective of an employer. Engaging in any other kind of reform, after all, would require institutions to acknowledge that many mental health problems are rooted in the very structures themselves.
Of course a company is more likely to offer you a free FitBit than they are to modify sick leave policies or adjust their line on overtime; one requires spending a bit of money on some technology, the other fundamentally overhauling the way we think about work. One requires workers themselves to be responsible for their mental health; the other requires structural support that simply does not exist.
It’s also telling that much writing on the topic focuses on ‘workplace performance’: one Acas report notes that improved wellbeing programmes will result in ‘improved workplace performance … in profitability, labour productivity, and the quality of outputs or services’. Here, poor employee mental health is not treated with the humanity or dignity it requires; instead, it’s seen as a barrier to profit, a person as a simple unit of value in a wider, uncaring machine.
This is warped. When Josh Hall, writing for the Baffler, described such programmes as ‘emblematic of the debasement of so many of our basic human instincts’, he wasn’t being hyperbolic: despite acting as a superficial nod towards genuine mental wellbeing, ‘wellbeing’ as currently used by employers and institutions is functionally useless.
By focusing on mindfulness and yoga, on free fruit and campus walks, universities and workplaces are both ignoring the parts of work that make us sick and devolving responsibility to the mentally ill themselves, excusing themselves from making further investment, material or otherwise. It’s a nice buzzword. But dig deeper and it’s easy to see that we’re simply being sold a lie that genuine wellbeing is within our grasp, if only we try hard enough.