This Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Kirsten Kurt-Elli highlights why mental health services should be top of the government’s agenda
Last week I sat in a constituency office taking down messages from their overworked answerphone message system.
I clicked the exhausted device to the next message and heard the familiar but nevertheless distressing tones of a desperate mother: ‘My daughter is sick. She has mental health problems. She needs help. We haven’t been getting any. Please help us.’
I looked to my left, and without looking up, a caseworker sighed ‘these NHS cuts, we’re becoming a frontline for mental health crisis calls’.
The voice was familiar. I heard my own mother in that voice. I heard the same desperation that has riddled my mother since I was eight years old when she was told by my primary school teacher that I was too young to have an eating disorder. Two long- term inpatient admissions later, countless attempts to end my life, and an entire adolescence spent inside hospital wards – I’m twenty-two and lucky to be alive.
Last month I was elected to be the disabled students officer for Labour Students, five months after an ambulance had collected me from my student house following a serious paracetamol overdose.
I am infinitely proud of the student movement for leading the way on mental health awareness. However, I have noticed that, since the soar in student fees, students are turning to their academic institutions for clinical support. They are expecting, rightly so, their money’s worth, but in doing so are relying on a privately provided service to support them where the National Health Service – vastly underfunded by the Tories – is failing to do so. Universities are buckling under the pressure of a crisis with young people’s mental health, and my own university closed its books for mental health support as the demand was too high.
If you are in higher education (which is inherently competitive and expensive), you have two options available to you and you are able to pursue both. You can enrol in services at your institution, and you can also be referred to NHS services and hope that you are picked up by the community care team before you reach crisis. What happens if you have not gone to university? What happens if you are an apprentice? What happens if you are a young worker? You do not have the luxury of back-up services should the needs for a referral fail you.
Yes, it is essential that universities offer welfare, counselling and support – however mental health conditions require clinical intervention. If you end up in accident and emergency in crisis and have been exclusively using university services they will have no medical notes for you. Moreover, when you inevitably graduate, the service you have been relying on disappears and you will find yourself at the bottom of an excruciatingly long waiting list.
Labour need to be leading the way in securing properly funded mental health NHS care – especially for 18 to 25-year-olds who are too old for child and adolescent mental health services but get overlooked by adult services. This needs to happen regardless of whether you are submitting first class work at a redbrick university, or if you are a server at Wetherspoons. You are more likely to die from a diagnosis of anorexia than a diagnosis of cancer. This is an urgent issue. One that cannot be put on a waiting list for the government’s attention.
I am lucky to be alive, but others are not so fortunate. Healthcare should not be a lottery. Certainly not one which the odds on getting help are slightly better just because you are a student.
Theresa May was able to find the money to save her own job last summer, surely she can find the money for the services that will save lives across the country?
Kirsten Kurt-Elli is disabled officer at Labour Students. She tweets @Kirsten_KE
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