Do counselling services at university need a dramatic overhaul?


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The Independent Online

Are counselling services providing enough support to students feeling overwhelmed at university? With social networking sites all encouraging us to post the positive elements of our lives, the widespread expectation that we should all be living a hedonistic lifestyle means that those students who do feel low or depressed can often resort to coping with their problems by themselves.

Worries about gradate employment, academic performance and social pressures are rarely discussed in the university sphere yet you would be hard pressed to find a person who isn't concerned about these issues.

While mental health services are offered at university, students aren’t being as supported as they need to be. Findings from the NUS' Mental Distress Survey Overview in 2013 revealed that a mere 10 per cent of students took up counselling services provided by their institution, while 12 per cent stated that they did not know where to seek support. It’s little wonder that so many students report difficulties with their mental health.

This is why mental health services at university, particularly the counselling services, need a dramatic overhaul. As additional findings from the study revealed that 26 per cent of students did not tell anyone about their feelings of mental distress, it is essential that universities implement a strategy to ensure that vulnerable students at university are supported.

Take Hannah*, a third-year accounting student: “In my first year, I really struggled to get on with my housemates and found my coursework really overwhelming, but everyone around me seemed fine. It wasn’t easy going into the counselling service particularly as I always thought counselling was quite stigmatised. Although they did help, it was only temporarily and I found it very difficult to cope on my own afterwards. I’m better now but there really should be more sessions or at the very least, more support."  

Rosie*, a second-year anthropology student, agrees: “It’s difficult to accept that you need help, but once you realise there is some support, the way to apply for it is an even more difficult process. In my university, you have to be on a campus computer to register, which defeats the objective. It's hard to do when you’re sitting down at home crying as I did when my friend died last year.”

Perhaps we need to take a leaf out of US universities’ books. While studying abroad at University of Miami, my experience of the counselling services was very different. As counselling services were advertised all over the campus, this created an open discussion surrounding it and it wasn’t a taboo subject.

Colum McGuire, the NUS vice president of welfare concurs that UK universities should increase the support available for students: “Many universities offer counselling services to students, which can be instrumental in helping students to stay on their courses. However, demand for this support has risen by a third in the last four years and few universities have increased the capacity of their provision to meet this need. As a result, many students have to wait for long periods to access these vital services. We would encourage any students who are concerned about the provision of counselling services at their institution to approach their students’ union who may be able to raise this with university management”.

So how can counselling services at universities be changed? First is the need to create an open discussion in a friendly environment about mental health issues, thereby combating the stigma attached to counselling. Many students I spoke to all cited fear, worry or humiliation at considering or having counselling sessions. The second is the responsibility of UK universities to promote and encourage their services to their student body - students must know there is a support system in place.

It is essential that universities must recognise the barriers that prevent students from seeking their help. From putting counselling services in a nondescript place to asking students for their opinions, even these little steps can help. Perhaps then students won't have to feel put off from seeking the help they need.