Coping with university: Don't worry, they'll have lots of support

Students have access to a host of services to help them cope with life, writes Becky Slack

Late nights, new people, unfamiliar places. Sex, drink, drugs. When a son or daughter moves away to university or college for the first time there are a whole host of things for parents to worry about. While it might not be the easiest of transitions – for parent or child – there is a strong network of support available that can provide assistance with all manner of problems from rogue landlords to mental health issues and everything else in between.

It's perfectly normal for parents to have concerns about their child's welfare when they head off to university. This is a big change for all the family and it can be easy to drum up visions of miserable teenagers living in damp, mouldy flats and eating cold baked beans out of the tin.

"When a child starts university it can be a difficult time for the parents. They can feel rejected, redundant and quite lost," says Suzie Hayman, agony aunt for Woman magazine and a trustee of the charity, Family Lives. "Parents can come up with all sorts of things they are worried about, the foundation of which might be what they are experiencing themselves, such as no longer feeling needed."

Parents who do have concerns can often find reassurance within the institutions themselves. All universities want to ensure their students are happy, well-integrated and productive. As such, there are any number of support services in place that aim to enhance the students' general wellbeing. Although facilities vary between institutions, there are many common features. In a 2011 survey by the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education (AMOSSHE), more than 80 per cent of universities offered services in counselling, disability, mental health, hardship funding, financial advice, health promotion and chaplaincy, among many others.

"Excellent student support is at the heart of an excellent student experience", says Dr Andrew West, chair of AMOSSHE and director of student services at the University of Sheffield. "We consider student support important in exactly the same way as we consider our educational purpose to be important. The two issues are inextricably linked."

It is possible to find out what's on offer with only a quick glance at the university's website. Another good source of information is the open day, which most universities now expect parents to attend. Far from being an embarrassing addition to the proceedings, parents are often offered their own special programme with sessions by key personnel who will be keen to demonstrate the level of support on offer.

There are 2.5 million students currently enrolled in either undergraduate or postgraduate education, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. For the majority of these, their time at university will pass by without more than a hangover or bout of the flu to worry about. However, if they do experience problems, they are likely to be financial, according to the National Union of Students (NUS). "The cost of living and studying has risen sharply," explains Pete Mercer, vice-president for welfare at the union. "Based on government statistics about average student outgoings, most are left with a £7,000 shortfall."

Students experiencing money worries have a number of options available. The Access to Learning Fund, provided by the Government, is open to domestic students who are unable to cover everyday living costs or emergency bills, such as repairs to essential equipment. Some universities will offer bursaries to students from low income families or will award scholarships in recognition of academic achievement, while disabled students are entitled to funding that can be used to pay for equipment, transport or help with adapting housing. And there are even charities that will give out grants (see box on page 14).

"The student should be made aware if they are eligible for any extra funding," says Mercer. "Grants tend to be given to those people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it's worth doing some extra research to see what else is on offer."

Housing is the other big area that receives lots of enquiries, says Mercer. From dealing with a dodgy landlord to problems getting refuse collected, there can be any number of issues to resolve.

Mercer says that many accommodation problems can be avoided by ensuring that the correct arrangements are in place from the start. He recommends students find out what their rights are before signing the tenancy agreement.

"Check the inventory and get the student advice centre to check over the contract," he says. "Students can be very laid back and rogue landlords will take advantage. Student union advisors are experienced in dealing with formal procedures and can help get the best outcome for you."

There are a number of codes of practice that providers of student accommodation are obliged to abide by, no matter whether they are privately owned or part of the university. And if rooms and houses don't meet the necessary standards, action can be taken. Students should contact their accommodation office, followed by the student union if any problems aren't resolved.

University is a fantastic experience for most people, but it's not always easy. Sometimes it might be that problems of a more personal nature come to the fore. For many people, talking about their problems with their friends or tutors can be all they need, but occasionally more professional help might be required.

One such service is Nightline, a confidential helpline that is available across the UK. Operated by students, for students, it is open every term time evening between 8pm and 8am and offers a listening and information service that can help with all kinds of queries from details of the nearest takeaway to more serious problems such as depression and stress.

Alternatively, students may wish to raise a mental health issue with one of their university counsellors. "There isn't necessarily anything special about student life which causes mental health problems, it just happens to be this period of their life when the illness develops," says Dan Doran, mental health co-ordinator at the University of Loughborough and secretary of the University Mental Health Advisers Network.

"Students are given an opportunity when they are applying to university to disclose if they experience mental health difficulties," he says. "If they tick that box support can be put in place before they arrive – although obviously we can still help them if they don't or if a problem develops while they are at university."

Doran says counsellors work in partnership with students to work through the difficulties they are facing. He gives the example of a student called Helen who suffered with severe anxiety while in her first year at university, which prevented her from fully participating in lectures and made her unable to use public facilities, such as the library. When she eventually found her way to the student counselling service, she found valuable practical support. Not only was she helped to make a successful application for Disabled Students Allowance – money from which was used to buy a laptop that she could use in locations better suited to her anxiety – but her lecturers were made aware of her situation. They allowed her to sit in a part of the room where she felt most at ease, resulting in better attendance. Helen was also given access to a support worker who helped her to understand her panic attacks so she could deal with them, says Doran. "All of this helped her get through a very difficult period and to remain at university."

The thought of their child using drink or drugs is most parents' nightmare. And let's face it, university is often a place of experimentation, particularly for students in their first year when they have just been released from their parents' shackles. In a BMC Public Health survey, students reported consuming significantly more units of alcohol per week in year one than years two and three. Meanwhile, in a recent Mixmag survey into UK drug use, almost 40 per cent of those who admitted to using cannabis, MDMA, cocaine and other drugs were students.

Before parents get too concerned, they should remember that most drug and alcohol use doesn't cause any problems, says Family Lives' Suzie Hayman. "The idea of experimentation might be uncomfortable for parents, but in the main it is not fatal [for those participating]," she says. "However, if you are worried, you should find out where to get help."

There are lots of organisations on hand to provide advice about drugs and alcohol, including Frank, the Government's online service and charities such as Addaction and Alcohol Concern. Most institutions will also have a strong focus on health education and so will be doing their own bit to highlight the dangers to their students.

Overall, the chances of something negative happening to a student are slim. Should it, though, often the most important support network available will be parents themselves. They act as guarantors for rented accommodation, will supplement the student loan or provide a much-needed boost to an unexciting diet by sending their child back off to university with a hamper full of goodies. More significantly, parents provide an element of stability at a time when many things are in a state of flux.

The key, says Hayman, is for parents to try and avoid telling their children what to do. University is a rite of passage, and most students want to feel and be independent. "Lecturing them will only make things worse," she says. "If a parent does have concerns, the best approach is to ask if their child has someone to talk to if they need to." A little research and some subtle hints in an email or conversation might also help point them in the right direction.

Hayman suggests making sure that teenagers have been taught the basics, such as how to cook and do their laundry, before they leave, but importantly that parents let their children find their own way: "People have to make their own mistakes. It's normal to be scared, but take a deep breath and get on with life."

When times are hard, help doesn't always have to come from official sources. Friendship groups and university tutors are often ideally placed to provide the moral and practical support needed to see a student through a difficult period, as Mike Goold was to discover in 2004. He had just started at the University of Edinburgh when his mother passed away suddenly.

"It was really tough. As it was so early on in my first semester, I hadn't really settled in," he says. "My tutors were great; they gave me really good support. They were flexible and understanding, particularly about me taking time to go home.

"I was also able to talk to my friends about what happened, which is where I realised that others had also been through really difficult times. University is quite good for that kind of support. You find yourself mixing with people who are of a similar age, or have been through similar situations. It was much easier to talk with them than it would have been had I been at work and surrounded by more senior people."

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