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Updated: Aug 22

SUNDAY 14 OCTOBER, 12:00—13:00, FROBISHER 4-6

Dr Beth Guilding - academic, Goldsmiths, University of London; co-editor, Narrating the Passions: new perspectives from modern and contemporary literature

Dr Ken McLaughlin - senior lecturer in social work, Manchester Metropolitan University; author, Surviving Identity: vulnerability and the psychology of recognition

Rachel Piper - policy manager, Student Minds; writer, Huffington Post

Linda Murdoch (Chair) - director of careers, University of Glasgow

Left to right: Beth Guilding, Linda Murdoch and Rachel Piper

“We want mental health support for students to be a top priority for the leadership of all our universities,” claimed Universities Minister Sam Gyimah.


In the context of statements like this one from Sam Gyimah, the Frobisher Room hosted an eye-opening debate about how the university preoccupation with mental health is paradoxically linked to greater illness rates. Some would say that the effect is causal: the more universities facilitate mental illness, through therapy-related initiatives and student protection measures, the more mental illness rates rise. At the same time there are those who claim that universities are better at finding illness; they are not causing illness.

Ken Mclaughlin thought that the more universities provide the resources for mental health improvement, the more they drive demand. This point became an important theme and I think of it as the dentist’s dilemma: there is surely little business in healthy gums, so why encourage healthy gums? I have often wondered if the dentist is infecting my mouth deliberately when I open wide, in order to generate future business. Are universities infecting students to feed the plethora of professionals employed and trained to treat the problem?

Crucially, said Ken Mclaughlin, there is the flashback myth. Apparently, when records of First World War survivors were analysed, very few ever reported flashbacks. Flashbacks are not a characteristic of real trauma, if First World War soldiers are representative. Yet mental illness and stress-related illness sufferers regularly report flashbacks. Mclaughlin argued that this demonstrates how individuals can come to believe that they are genuinely suffering a symptom not usually characteristic of the condition. Human perception of mental illness is subjective; we can easily come to believe we are ill if prompted.

Rachel Piper stressed that universities have a duty of care to the individual. She recognised both a connection and a categorical difference between mental well-being (how someone copes with day to day stressors) and mental illness (a diagnosed illness or condition). As a place of learning, universities should recognise that being well is integral to learning. Rachel Piper highlighted trigger warnings (content warnings about troubling themes prior to a lecture) as a form of common sense, no different to producing a prior reading list. Rachel Piper, in this debate, represented something of a minority position and stood her ground.

Having accessed support herself, academic Beth Guilding pointed out that universities are not trying to harm students and felt that support is one thing, but pandering to students’ well-being is another. What is crucial is how support services are used; too often problems are outsourced and Beth Guilding’s job is to talk about psychoanalysis, not be the psychoanalyst.

This debate featured some fascinating contributions from audience members, many of them university academics. University lecturers, they felt, should not be pondering whether to phone students’ parents when they are apparently suffering stress-related illness. Just because mental illness is real, this doesn’t make it true: a person can feel sick when they are not sick. The problem with trigger warnings, said another academic, is that they assume, a priori, that lecture content is offensive: that is an ideological position which should not be taken by lecturers. Agency hurts, claimed another speaker; we suffer by virtue of our status of self-governing individuals.

For sixth form students they should be aware that universities are going to greater lengths to safeguard their wellbeing; at the same time, these measures may be counter-productive. In assuming that they won’t cope with the rigours of academic study, it is possible that some students might meet such expectations by not coping with academic study. Support services are available and relevant; this does not mean that they should be prevailing and prevalent.

Discussion questions

  • Is happiness desirable?

  • Are successful people happy?

  • At one university recently there were some ten suicides in a short period of time: should the university be held accountable for these deaths?

  • Should lectures have trigger warnings? A warning of possible disturbing content in the lecture?

  • Are there any theories or ideas that should not be taught to students at university?

  • Would you rather have knowledge or a consistent state of wellbeing?

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