One flew over the students’ nest

Why is the NUS so hellbent on depicting its members as mentally fragile creatures who can't cope with life?

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

You might have thought that as champions of students’ interests, the National Union of Students (NUS) would defend students against their critics, portraying them as robust individuals, a headstrong new generation, ready to take whatever the world throws at them.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the NUS appears to be undertaking a sustained exercise to demonstrate the opposite – that many students are suffering from mental-health problems and are unable to cope with the stresses of campus life, particularly nasty exams.

The latest in a line of NUS surveys has just been published, which lists a wide range of ‘negative feelings’ among students. For example, 80 per cent feel ‘stressed’, 55 per cent feel ‘anxious’, and 22 per cent say they are homesick. According to a BBC News report, 15 per cent of students have even been upset by the ‘insensitivity’ of a lecturer.

The list goes on and on – feelings of ‘worthlessness’, problems ‘fitting in’, insomnia, feeling down, a lack of energy or motivation, and an anxiety about bullying. Many of these things, of course, will be familiar to anyone who has spent three years on campus, and, indeed, anyone who hasn’t too. Feeling homesick after being away from home for the first time is hardly unusual (it’s surprising that less than a quarter of the students surveyed claimed to have experienced). The fact that students feel stressed when writing essays or undergoing exams should come as a surprise to no one.

What is striking, however, is the NUS’s determination to cast these typical student experiences as problematic. This encourages students to confess their vulnerability and to seek help rather than learn to deal with the pressures of university life by themselves. After all, surely there is no such thing as a stress-free exam? Exams by their very nature put students under extreme time-pressure in order to see what they are made of. This, in the eyes of the NUS, is bad – it has previously used mental-health surveys, such as that in the 2010 NUS Scotland report Silently Stressed, to argue for educational institutions to scrap exams and ‘consider ways in which students can be assessed without being overwhelmed’.

The expectation seems to be that students can’t handle the pressure, and alternative approaches should be found to ease them through their studies. Moreover, the traditional ways of coping with stressful situations – such as talking to family and friends – are viewed by the NUS as unsatisfactory. Its report highlights as a problem the fact that ‘students were more likely to tell their friends and family about feelings of anxiety, rather than a doctor or member of the academic or university counselling staff’. Informal networks just won’t cut it – professional help needs to be sought. As an NUS spokesperson put it: ‘Over a quarter of those surveyed did not tell anyone about their problems, with a mere one in 10 using care provided by their institution.’

Such views are echoed by the CEO of mental-health charity Mind, Paul Farmer. He said the survey ‘revealed the extent of the problem and that too few students were seeking help’.

While voting through a raft of new policies on mental health at the NUS conference this year, student representatives claimed their surveys were ‘very informative and successful’. But successful, it must be asked, in what way? Because the surveys genuinely reflect students concerns, or because they confirm the already-existing concerns of the NUS? Perhaps due to the stressful nature of the work involved, the NUS didn’t go to the trouble of ensuring that its survey was representative of the student population. Instead, the survey sample was self-selecting, meaning it was quite possible that those with an interest in the topic, and perhaps suffering from mental-health issues themselves, would fill it out.

As the Guardian reports, ‘NUS researchers admit that their survey was self-selecting and may exaggerate the prevalence of mental-health problems among students’. This was also the case with NUS Scotland’s 2011 research, Breaking the Silence, which reached some major conclusions about ‘serious and far-reaching’ issues of mental illness on campus, but which had a telling proviso: ‘As the participants were a self-selecting group, they cannot be truly reflective of all student views or, indeed, of students with mental-health needs.’

Such trivialities as attaining a ‘truly reflective’ picture of what is going on don’t seem to bother the NUS, however. As the NUS disabled students’ officer told the Guardian, their ‘“primary concern” is that very few of the students experiencing distress speak about their problem’. This approach veers dangerously to being advocacy research, using unrepresentative data to bolster existing prejudices among student leaders. So because highlighting the anxieties students face is deemed to be the point of the exercise, the accuracy or otherwise of the research is regarded as irrelevant by the NUS leadership.

The self-selecting nature of the sample is particularly important to bear in mind when assessing claims such as ‘more than one in 10 students said they had experienced “suicidal thoughts”’. But the bigger issue here is that the NUS is choosing to lump commonplace exam stress and homesickness alongside contemplation of suicide. Stress, homesickness, feeling down – these are all normal parts of life. By casting them as mental-health issues, the NUS is creating an epidemic of depression.

Studenthood was once a time when young people became adults; now they are being socialised to think of themselves as fragile, vulnerable and damaged. That NUS officials are at the forefront of such socialisation speaks volumes about the contempt in which they hold the students they claim to represent.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

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Topics Politics


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