Stressed? Help is always at hand

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The Independent Online

There cannot be a student at university or college who is not going to run into problems at some time during their course. What should concern new students and their parents and tutors - all equally anxious that freshers should not join the 18 per cent of students who drop out before completing their degrees - is the quality of the support and help which is available when problems crop up.

There cannot be a student at university or college who is not going to run into problems at some time during their course. What should concern new students and their parents and tutors - all equally anxious that freshers should not join the 18 per cent of students who drop out before completing their degrees - is the quality of the support and help which is available when problems crop up.

The most common reason for dropping out is finance, and that is where universities and students unions are, sadly, least able to help. Student loans offer only the most frugal lifestyle and in more expensive areas such as the South-east barely cover the rent. Hardship and access funds are there for emergencies, but the amount of cash help they can offer is small. For many a part-time job is the only answer, and for some even that fails to bridge the gap.

But lack of cash can also have a knock-on effect on health and the ability to study. As can the sort of unhealthy lifestyle - lots of lager and chips and late nights - in which some students indulge. This is where the support services, which the National Union of Students regards as essential, should kick in. Whether they do or not is, according to Rachel Cashman, the NUS's vice-president for student welfare, a lottery. Some are very good, others are poor, and often it's difficult to judge which is which until you get there.

In the best cases, she says, there should be a range of tutors, counsellors and advice centres based either in the university or the students union, but run as a network so that students can access help easily and effectively.

Standards vary enormously, Rachel Cashman says, with some universities providing a comprehensive student health service and others leaving students to register with doctors for themselves.

Mental health can also be a problem for young people away from home for the first time, and should be a major concern for tutors or wardens in halls of residence who should be the first to spot that a student is absent, neither handing in work nor appearing at lectures, or has an isolated lifestyle.

But student support services are only as good as their advertising. If you hit a crisis with your health, your work, your accommodation or your finances, you need to know where to get advice fast.

Cardiff University, which the NUS regards as one of the leaders nationally in the provision of student services, has joined together with its students union to provide astudent diary for every fresher, which is something of a bible for anyone who might need help or advice. It provides everything a student might need to know from house-hunting to exam stress, from money worries to sexual health advice.

The latest welfare innovation at Cardiff is a research project to help the high proportion of 500 students seeking counselling last year who reported an eating disorder as one of their problems. Student counsellors are identifying the best ways to help such students and increase the specialist assistance available.

None of these services is unique to Cardiff but the format of its diary probably is. Elsewhere, students with problems should head for the students union, where a welfare office is usually available. An alternative starting point is the NUS web-site www.nusonline. co.uk

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