I need a psychiatrist, not a tutor

The stresses of academic life are taking a terrible toll on students, writes Sandra Smith
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The explosion in the student population in the past 10 years has dramatically changed the nature of university life, the kind of people who become students and the type of problems that they have. As a result, student counsellors are seeing more seriously disturbed students than ever before.

Whereas in the early Eighties, most students entered university or college aged about 18 and with several A-levels, now many of them are older, they have no A-levels, they have worked for several years, they have children, and they are not from affluent backgrounds. Many mature students will have been made redundant and could have been unemployed for a long time.

Problems with relationships are the main reason students go to counsellors, says Mark Phippen, a counsellor and the chairman of a research committee at the Association for Student Counselling. "Five years ago I commonly saw people because they had rowed with their girlfriend or boyfriend. Now we see none of that whatsoever. It could take two to three weeks to see a counsellor, so they'll often have broken up by the time their appointment arrives. Now we tend to see the more serious cases, more personality disorders than before, behaviour that is on the borderline for psychiatric referral."

This could be because staff numbers have not kept pace with the growth in student numbers. "Tutor support has gone. In the past they would have spotted problems and dealt with them early on. Now students may meet their tutor once at the beginning of term. So we see these students later, when their problems have become much bigger."

Mr Phippen recently carried out a study for the association in which 64 per cent of universities and colleges reported an increase in psychological disturbance among students.

Suicide among students has increased dramatically, says Don Foster, Liberal Democrat spokesman on education, who has just completed a study of figures returned by 40 universities on the subject. The rate of suicide among young university students is still lower than in the most comparable age group - 15- to 25-year-olds - but with the expansion of student numbers in recent years, the rate of student suicides has risen fourfold in the 10 years to 1994; in 1993-94, 32 students killed themselves. Male students were three times more likely to kill themselves than female ones and the over-25s were particularly vulnerable.

"The way in which higher education is expanding is having a damaging effect on universities and levying unprecedented burdens on the student," says Mrs Foster. There is a shortage of resources, and overcrowding. This is taking its toll."

Mr Phippen says: "The stresses on students have increased, due to changes in finances, a greater pressure to succeed, and pressure on employment. Some would even consider the community care changes in the mental health sector to be a factor, as some of these people enter further and higher education."

Counsellors report that the greatest change in student life over the past decade is the stress that they experience because of poverty. Reduced grants have increased their reliance on student loans, a source of great anxiety.

Christine Payne, chair of the Association for Student Counselling, is a counsellor at the North East Surrey College of Technology, in Epsom. She says: "When I first came here, Surrey was quite prosperous and our students were young people with few financial worries. Now we see an increase in students from families on benefits. We see many more people with difficulties that are exacerbated by financial worry."

There has also been a squeeze on university resources during the past decade, so students report a shortage of suitable study areas, limited numbers of computer terminals and difficulty getting library books. Universities struggle to find accommodation for first-year students.

Attitudes to counselling have changed, and it has become far more acceptable to seek help. Craig McDevitt, head of Edinburgh University's counselling service, says: "Ten years ago, 60 to 70 per cent of the people we saw came through referrals, from GPs or academic staff, for example. They slunk in. Now about 60 per cent refer themselves. People are more ready to come forward and talk about what was formerly regarded as private."

Students' Top 10 Problems

1. Relationships with family, partners, tutors

(more than 20 per cent of problems

presented to counsellors)

2. Anxiety (about 16 per cent) 3. Academic 4. Depression 5. Bereavement 6. Abuse (about 8 per cent) 7. Intra-personal, including those with low

self-esteem or self-confidence, as well

as the suicidal 8. Sexuality (less than 5 per cent of problems) 9. Transitions, including difficulties adjusting

to university life, or to such changes as

parents' divorce 10. Drugs, alcohol, etc