From globally dispersed, socially isolated flats, students congregated through Teams to share and listen to their mental health stories, aiming to change King’s policy.

Organised by student society King’s 4 Change, the meeting was part of a wider scheme by NHS South London and Maudsley (SLaM) and Citizens UK to partner with local community groups, mental health trusts and local authorities in South London to respond to growing demand for mental health services in the region “during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The listening phase of the campaign began on 10 November 2020 and will finish on 28 February 2021. Using this “partnership model”, King’s 4 Change and other participating organisations aim to produce a 2-year action plan in April which will be shared with key councils and Trusts in South London. The campaign has drawn on insight from 2000 participants and aims to listen to 5000 people by 28 February.

When asked to share their stories and concerns, attendees described Kings’ mental health provisions as “inadequate”, drawing particular concern towards its No Detriment policy, Mitigating Circumstances procedure, and counselling services.

Roar spoke to organiser Vitoria Russo Gaino, who told us that “like in many other arenas, the pandemic has highlighted and worsened existing problems within mental health, such as poor and inaccessible counselling services, and really brought mental health to the forefront.” She expressed being drawn to the project’s community organising approach after the pandemic changed her perception of mental health from being an “individual issue” to a “shared struggle.”

“I know I am not the only one feeling this way, as I have seen my friends also struggling and being let down by the university’s services due to long waiting times or overcomplicated processes”, she added.

Ms Gaino also regarded the campaign’s “partnership model”, facilitating communication between King’s students and the university, as “key for implementing … effective long-term change…” to mental health policy: “To me at the core of the issue is an inability of King’s to listen. Throughout this whole thing, very few times have I felt heard by King’s staff…

“So, by listening and exchanging stories I hope we will see change at the local, city and institutional level well beyond Covid. I hope that it will show decision-makers the importance of listening to the community so that issues like this can be avoided in the first place, and that listening becomes common practice!”

Though King’s 4 Change have not scheduled any further meetings for King’s students to provide testimony collectively, Ms Gaino told Roar that she is open to be contacted informally by email at: vitoria.russo_gaino@kcl.ac.uk. “At King’s For Change, we believe in the power of sharing stories for creating change so if anyone wants to share their story I am more than happy to virtually meet up and hear it.”

The university and the UK as a whole is facing a mental health crisis. According to Ranstad, a Human Resources and Recruitment agency, 37% of surveyed UK Higher Education students saw their mental health decline in 2020.

One recent King’s study also found that nearly half of NHS ICU staff surveyed met the clinical threshold for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to 17% in recent combat veterans. Another found significant links between loneliness during Covid-19 lockdown and exacerbated symptoms of depression and anxiety in adults over 50.

Concerns around mental health provisions have also been a core concern for the rent strikers at King’s, with the organisation having made a similar call for student testimony on 8 January through Instagram. King’s is one of the “20 campuses across Britain” participating in “the largest wave of student rent strikes in four decades”, according to Inews.

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