The Silent Crisis in Britain's Universities

Holly McDermott

2 April 2020

by Sam Teesdale

Nightfall descends on Hyde Park as the last few foggy beams of sunlight dissipate into the biting November air. Cars and people make their way down the rows of anonymous red terraced streets. It's 4.27 on a Saturday evening and a light drizzle has started, yet the continual bustle of life in Hyde Park is unflinching and undampened. I make my way towards Cardigan Road, jotting down some last-minute questions in the best shorthand I can muster. The Cardigan Centre is an unassuming, modest place which one could easily walk by without noticing. 

However, every Saturday the ordinary building becomes home to something rather extraordinary. 

I'm here to meet Theresa Kirk, the founder of It's Our Day, a new charity which aims to ‘understand the reasons why so many young people are reporting poor mental health’. 

Every Saturday, It's Our Day hosts a breakfast club in which students can come and get free food, free toiletries, free drinks and so on. The charity describes the event as being led by ‘parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles for students in the Leeds area a few hours a month.’ 

Walking into the centre, I’m met by Theresa, the charities founder, who offers me a welcome as warm as the blasts of air coming from the heaters at the entrance. She walks confidently over, wearing a bright red apron and her hair tied back in a ponytail. “Your hands are freezing!” she exclaims, as I shake her hand. 

We enter a room lined with sweets, cake, fruit, sandwiches, soup, chocolate, bread and pretty much any other food which would appeal to hungry students. The radio is playing softly in the background and there is a large group of students sitting and conversing over countless cups of tea. As we sit, we are joined by Jo, another trustee of the charity. 

Theresa talks about the origins of the charity and how the foundation gained its name. “We set off by calling it Emma’s Embrace and that’s named after my daughter, Emma, who died last year in October. I know from Emma telling me how things are different today for young people and very often she’d sit with her dad and they’d argue about how things are changing in our day. That’s why we named the charity It's Our Day. It is the students reclaiming their voice and saying: we won't be ignored anymore, It's Our Day.”

Emma’s suicide left a massive hole in the lives of her friends, family and everybody who knew her - which makes Theresa’s determination to make something good out of such tragic circumstances even more inspiring. 

As we talk, the last few students steadily begin to leave the Breakfast Club as night rapidly descends outside. Theresa continues: “We're concerned about the nation’s response to the mental health crisis, in that it’s viewed as a problem of the person rather than the environment that’s around them. The evidence is there that the pressures which young people are under today are unrelenting.” 

Jo adds: “You can throw as much money as you want at waiting times, but it’s not going to solve anything unless you prevent mental health issues from starting. That’s what we’re most interested in: preventing poor mental health.” 

Is it a bit strange to call it a Breakfast Club when it starts in the afternoon? I ask half- jokingly. Theresa replies: “A little, but we know that students wouldn't normally be up until lunchtime on a Saturday - especially if they had been out the night before.” 

The evidence is clear, and it would not be an understatement to say that there is a mental health crisis currently unfolding not just in higher education but in Britain as a nation. 

According to the Samaritans, there were 6,507 suicides during 2018. Furthermore, the rate of deaths among young people increased by nearly a quarter in the same year. A vast amount of these deaths are teenagers or students within higher education - with males suffering a significantly higher suicide rate than females. The Guardian reported that during 2017, a student committed suicide every four days. 

According to It's Our Day, only 5% of mental health research funding is spent on investigating prevention, leaving the other 95% spent on treatment. The charity says these figures are “simply not good enough.” The charity commissioned a three-year long research from Leeds Beckett University, which looked at: 

  • Students' expectations of university compared to their actual experiences.
  • Positive experiences in both academia and personal.
  • Negatives experiences in both academia and personal.
  • How students currently seek help and how successful this has been.
  • What help young people think should be available.

 

The Breakfast Club leaves dozens of feedback forms which encourage students to write down their thoughts and what the initiative means to them and how it helps. Theresa gave me a long list of these feedback answers and the forms show just how impactful the charity is becoming in such a short space of time. 

The first piece of feedback that I read says: “I haven’t done a food shop for over two weeks, this is the first real thing I have eaten in two days”. This sentence sets the tone for a large portion of the document with many students illustrating the fact that they regularly go hungry. 

Another piece of feedback says: “I am on my way to a 12-hour shift, for the first time on a full stomach”. The responses are overwhelmingly positive, with adjectives such as "friendly", "welcoming" and "comforting" cropping up throughout the pages of feedback. Interestingly, there are far more Leeds University students in attendance than Leeds Beckett students. Data from the 9th of November shows that there were only five Leeds Beckett students compared to 25 Leeds University students. 

As the time approaches 5.30pm, Theresa, Jo and I are the only remaining people in the Breakfast Club. A volunteer finishes tidying, slowly packing plates into large cardboard boxes. Theresa tells me that the Breakfast club is booked until May and will only be getting larger and busier. I wonder about their ultimate ambition for Its Our Day and where they hope they will be in five years time. 

Theresa says: “My vision is that the Breakfast Club model will be available in every city in Britain. Not just that, we’re hoping that there will be numerous clubs within the same city, each offering support for students. We’ve spoken to both universities about offering a one-off payment of £10 at the start of each academic year in September. We have a modest estimate that there are around 80,000 students in Leeds. So, if each student paid £10 towards the centres, we would gain £800,000 in revenue which would then be entirely reinvested into the charity. Imagine what we could offer with £800,000 worth of food and necessities!” 

During my short walk home, I begin to reflect on our incredibly detailed conversation about the charity. In its entirety I think about Emma and her family, and how one can only imagine the suffering that befell Theresa and her husband last October. I think about the people who lost their fight with depression and I wonder about the young people I know, who are suffering with mental health issues this winter. I wonder about the parents and siblings who are approaching Christmas without their loved one for the first time - or for the tenth time. I try to imagine what it must be like to endure the 25th of December with an empty seat at the table, and one less present to give. 

But this sadness begins to transform into a strange sense of hopefulness. I now think of the many students and young people who look forward to Saturday’s with excitement, because it means they will be able to relax with friends and forget about the hardships of life. 

The thought of every city in Britain gaining as fantastic a service as the Breakfast Club adds to this sense of optimism. Finally, Theresa’s perseverance and resilience in the face of such extreme adversity proves to me once and for all that no matter how terrible the circumstances, something fantastic can be made from it. 

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