Puppies are not the answer
Another day, another puppy room.
According to a front-page BBC News article today…
This woman might have been suffering from serious mental health issues caused by family life, the unmanageable expectations of her education provider, high cost of living, anxiety about the value of her degree in the future, or the eighteen week wait to see a counsellor. But now she’s touching a puppy, so the deep causes and long-term effects of her issues are magically solved!
NO, THEY DON’T.
Puppy rooms are not the answer to the mental health crisis affecting university students.
They are a fig leaf.
They distract people away from the root causes — such as the crushing pressure created by so many courses with the tacit approval of their institutions, or the chronic under-resourcing of student counselling services. To name just two.
All too often, puppy rooms are university PR masquerading as adequate student support or a wellbeing strategy.
When they’re put on by the educational institution, I can guarantee there’s a counselling service manager throwing their hands up in despair.
When they’re arranged by a students’ union, I think to myself — is this the most strategic intervention this SU is in a position to make? A two-hour tickle at the symptoms of a national crisis? What could this SU do to shift the conversation with their partner institution away from treating the symptoms, to addressing the causes?
Possibly the worst thing about the spread of puppy rooms is the narrative it enforces. A significant chunk of the population is primed and ready to pounce on any evidence that allows them to think young people are ‘soft’ and ‘snowflakes’.
(It’s how they alleviate the tiny inner voice of dread which whispers to them ‘Maybe we have let down the generations following us’.)
Puppy rooms take a structural problem — of the conditions and methods in which our children and young people are educated, in a pressure cooker of competition, stress, self-image; as well as a higher education system that rewards academics for pumping out research papers rather than developing actual teaching skills — and disguise it as an individual problem.
That students should just ‘study harder’ or ‘be tougher’ or ‘worry less’ or ‘be more like older generations' or just go touch a puppy every few months.
Every time you read an uplifting article about a school hiring a labrador as a staff member, think of all the families destroyed by the epidemic of student suicides. Is a puppy really going to make a difference?
If a puppy room is 0.1% of an institution’s wellbeing efforts, just one surface-level manifestation of an organisational culture change to address the root causes of stress and mental illness, then great, book a room, put some puppies in it. But if it’s all you’ve got, go back to the drawing board.
Our education system grinds people up. A puppy isn’t going to put them back together.
Full disclosure: I arranged a petting zoo when a member of staff at Imperial College Union, back in 2012 or so. Call me a hypocrite if you like; but that event, as well as several years working on student wellbeing strategy, taught me the lessons I’ve written up above.