Student stress levels worry advice centres

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The Independent Online
COUNSELLING services at many universities and colleges in Britain are in crisis, with students forced to wait as long as four months for appointments. More students and staff are seeking help than ever before.

College advice centres are alarmed at the increasing number of clients with severe psychological problems, including mental and eating disorders and self-inflicted wounds. Some undergraduates have dropped out of education while waiting for treatment.

Debt is another common problem, exacerbated by the recession and fears of unemployment after graduation. And the large increase in student numbers in higher education has seen no matching rise in the number of counsellors. Some colleges have introduced waiting lists for counselling for the first time - and the amount of time spent with each client has been cut.

The issue was highlighted last week by Samantha Fox, who spent eight days wandering the streets of London after she was expelled from Swansea University for not attending lectures. For three months the 20-year-old had stayed at college pretending nothing was wrong. After being reunited with her family she said the waiting time at the university's counselling service dissuaded her from seeking help.

Swansea University says it did all it could to help Ms Fox. The university will employ an extra counsellor from next year - making three for about 7,500 students. The students' union is considering altering its procedures for checking on undergraduates who have been threatened with explusion.

Elsa Bell, chair of the British Association for Counselling, estimated that between 4 and 8 per cent of college staff and students used counselling services. Although there are few statistics on the problem, a recent survey revealed that at Oxford University between 1976 and 1990 there were 21 suicides and 25 attempts. The Association of Student Counsellors is collecting information from all universities and colleges to assess the scale of the problem.

At Nottingham University, unless they are 'emergency cases', students who seek help after the first few weeks of term usually have to wait until the next term for counselling - a period of up to four months. The university has 10,500 students, and two full- time and two part-time counsellors. Helen Henry, a senior counsellor, said: 'We have had students approach us, but before they can be seen they have left - this is very worrying as they may have very serious problems.'

Sheffield University has introduced waiting lists and new clients are offered a maximum of four hours' help.

Geraldine Shipton, a university counsellor, said: 'We are seeing people with severe problems - people who are on the edge of reality, some with histories of self- harm, sexual abuse and eating disorders.'