That is unacceptable in a nation where the government has made eradicating child poverty one of its key ambitions. In November, the Mental Health Foundation, in partnership with Colleges Scotland, released the shocking findings of the country’s biggest-ever survey to examine the mental well-being of Scotland’s students.
The Thriving Learners survey found one-in-six students were in homes where the food had run out and 25 per cent of those who experienced food insecurity reported severe symptoms of depression.
Student poverty is not new – West Lothian College has been providing a free hot breakfast and soup for lunch to students for over four years. But it is starker than ever before. Hundreds of our students live in fear about the weeks ahead and we rely on local partners to enhance the help we give our students.
With the help of West Lothian Council, we created an anti-poverty fund targeted at young students. The Larder, a local social enterprise, supplies healthy pre-cooked dinners for students to take home to feed themselves and their families. And we have an outdoor washing machine on campus for homeless students and others who otherwise could not afford to clean their clothes.
Poverty wreaks havoc on people’s lives. We see this every day with students seeking help for poor mental health caused by juggling the impossible choices about whether to pay rent, keep themselves warm, feed their children, or travel to college.
Colleges can’t fix this crisis by themselves. The well-being of students is as big a priority as academic attainment, and the government needs to recognise that. For students who struggled through Covid and now have the added pressure of the cost-of-living crisis, success can’t just be measured by gaining qualifications.
Success is also about getting up every morning despite complex personal and social challenges. Success is about sticking with their courses when they are stressing about where the next meal will come from. Success is about not-self-harming and seeking help to carry on.
With more than six-out-of-ten students reporting low mental well-being it’s obvious that, if the government wants to ease the crisis it must deliver a sustainably funded solution. Worryingly, the cash they provide for counsellors is set to run out in weeks. So, in July, we could be in the position of losing the very frontline staff who support our most vulnerable students and literally save lives.
Government needs to lead on these issues. It needs to use the data to find solutions for students that include improving pathways into the NHS for our most challenged students. We need continued funding for campus counsellors, support for tackling food poverty more effectively, and a pledge to make student well-being as important as academic achievement.
The cries for help, reflected in the responses from our students in the report, need to be heard. The least they deserve is for all of us – colleges, government, the NHS and other stakeholders – to ensure that safeguarding them is our number one priority.
Jackie Galbraith is principal of West Lothian College