YOU ARE FUCKING KILLING US: A Courteous Letter to the University of Otago

[CW: mental health, depression, suicide, sexual violence, capitalism]

One of the most heart-wrenching moments of this year’s OUSA election forums was hearing that nearly every candidate has known or does know someone struggling through depression, self-harm, or worse, who has committed suicide. I mark my position from the outset; I am pro-suicide prevention, but I also hold nothing against those who commit suicide. The way the world is, I don’t believe we have the right to deny such an act. We live in a fucked up world; we are told to follow our dreams, but not those dreams, the one’s not on offer on the job market; we are told career paths are now flexible, a pathetic veil over the decimation of worker’s rights unto a future of economic precarity and instability; we are told to appreciate our place in the world, while millions die out of a lack of access to resources reserved for the wealthy and powerful; we are told God is dead, but have yet to fill that lack with anything substantial except cold, selfish, liberal individualism. I have tried to commit suicide at least half a dozen times, simply out of fatalistic defeat over what seems to be a perpetual, self-maximising, heartless capitalist machine of a society we live in. At the same time, however, I don’t think things have to stay the way they are.

I completely agree with the OUSA candidates that mental health is the most important issue on campus. It affects every part of one’s existence; one’s ability to attend class, to concentrate and study, to do assignments. It decimates relationships, saps the joy out of everyday pleasures, reconfigures the world bleak, pointless, and painful to interact with. One’s mental state does not merely colour over some objective world out there, but rather, restructures reality entirely. One’s place in society is transformed, one’s connections morph, the dialectic between oneself and the other shifts, communication, interactions and affective investments erode under the absurdity of postmodern existence. I feel both compassion and horror over the realisation that so many other students feel so similarly. That what, in my experience has been utterly isolating and distancing, has become a topic we can come together to discuss. That is a step towards something. As a volunteer of Justice through Solidarity shouted during the second forum “Students are dying now.” We need change.

Justice through Solidarity

However, while every OUSA candidate showed concern for mental health, their theoretical frameworks differed drastically. Of particular note were about two-thirds who believed the issue could be fixed (or at least alleviated) through increased OUSA services. However, as another audience member said, OUSA is supposed to be a representative body for the students, not a service provider. He was not dismissing the necessity of services, but rather, contesting the shift of OUSA from a political force, towards, what is essentially, a charity. The issue with this approach is that, rather than attack the source of mental instability, we only treat its worst effects. We help students after the fact, after the suicide attempt, after the breakdown. That is not fucking enough. “Students are dying now.” We need a preventative form of care that effaces the source of mental illness. Unfortunately, many OUSA candidates did not pinpoint any source.

I am a supporter of Students Against Sexual Violence and Justice through Solidarity, although I also have fond leanings towards Be Bold and Alex McKirdy. These are the groups and individuals that seem to see beyond the narrow bureaucratism of the more conservative candidates. OUSA, after all, is not a company. It is a political body, and as a political body, it must engage with the University, not as a partner, but as a critical conscience. Mental health will not be solved through service provisions alone. We need systemic change, for mental health is only one symptom of a greater malaise, and that malaise is neoliberalism. As OUSA candidate Kyra Gillies mentioned in the second forum, you cannot talk about mental health without talking about housing, debt, economic insecurity, overbearing workloads, rape culture, and more. Damp flats, fucking awful landlords, the unequal power dynamics involved in this master-slave dependency relationship. Student debt, the casualisation of the workforce, the looming crisis of an austere, precarious future. Over-assessments, fuck all exam study times, the compressing of once year-long papers into single semester info-dumps. Sexual objectification, rape and trauma, normalised by vitriolic hypermasculinity.

Students Against Sexual Violence Otago

Neither students nor staff benefit from any of this. The Humanities cuts last year, the PE and general staff cuts this year. The drive for profit swings education from public good towards consumer product, driven by demand rather than equity or justice. When education is forced to play by market rules students are reduced to consumers, reduced to a CV of transferable skills, of selling themselves in a dehumanising elevator pitch. Education becomes instrumentalised for capital. Any department that cannot fit this model is cut, restructured, effaced. The university becomes a job factory, and we, its self-producing market commodities. The only thing that trickles down from neoliberal economics is untold suffering and alienation. With less support staff, academic staff must bear greater loads. Yes, student mental health matters, but what about the professors, tutors, behind-the-scene administrators who keep the university chugging along for our sake? If we don’t support their struggle, it ends up worse for everyone.

Without OUSA independence, our political power is diminished. We cannot fight against this for-profit, corporate rebranding, beautification bullshit, while simultaneously 182 full-time staff positions are cut. If we truly care about mental health, then these issues cannot be considered in isolation. It disgusts me to think millions have been thrown into a beautification project, rather than mental health. As I said earlier, services alone are not enough, but we’ve gone from unlimited counselling sessions, to six a semester, to six a year. With an operating surplus of $27 million dollars, I question why more counsellors have not been hired. Why the responsibility for such a service has increasingly come to be that of the students’. The university is either malicious, unfair or simply incompetent.

Be Bold

As a supporter of Justice through Solidarity, we must fight for our student rights, our mental health rights, our human rights, because as it stands now, the neoliberal university is driving us to death. We cannot restrict our methods to boardroom meetings behind closed doors. We have to advocate for students on the ground, not simply for them, but with them. We have to advocate beyond campus and challenge all forms of oppression, because justice will not be found in the vote, and the revolution will not be passed in parliament.

Ka whawhai tonu mātou, Ake! Ake! Ake! – We will fight, forever and ever.


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