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Are universities doing enough to support students with mental health problems?

Statistics show students are struggling with mental health more than ever. Is your university doing enough to provide for your welfare?

Within just four years the number of student suicides has doubled in women and risen by over a third in men, data from the Office for National Statistics shows. Students are facing intense pressure to succeed under heavy financial burdens due to high tuition fees and a tough job market. Yet long waiting lists for university counselling services dissuade many in need of help from seeking it in the first place.

Suffering from depression and binge eating disorder, Mollie Jones, 19, decided to take a year out from studying at Cambridge.

"By the time I dropped out I was so depressed that I was unable to get out of bed, let alone submit essays," she said. "I waited a month to see my first counsellor but they disregarded my problem, attributing it to my upbringing and relationship with my family. I never went back, feeling unable to talk about my problems."

Mollie eventually transferred to an approachable, patient counsellor who showed a genuine interest in helping with the severity of her situation. Unfortunately, regular appointments meant sacrificing valuable work time. “Life would have been far easier if my college had provided their own counselling service. I regularly had to take two hours out of lectures and reading to trek across town to the central university service,” she explained.

Struggling to fulfil academic commitments while facing mental health problems, Mollie felt pressured to choose between the two. “My Director of Studies strongly encouraged me to take a year out and as a result I grew very insecure about my work. I felt that Cambridge would rather I went home to battle my demons than risk their academic record by fighting them at university. I worry that by the time I return in October, my friends will have moved on.”

Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, commented: “Educational outcomes are dependent upon student wellbeing so separating the two is a totally foolish distinction. If universities are looking to maximise their gain in terms of students completing courses with the highest possible grades, they need to look after their welfare. Universities have the knowledge and skills to deal with student mental health but they need to make it a priority.”

The Royal College of Psychiatrists wants to see a formal university mental health policy implemented across the UK, so that students and staff understand the levels of support to expect if they are struggling. Leeds graduate Ed Pinkney, 26, founded Mental Wealth UK in 2010, a national charity that encourages students to set up their own mental health advocacy groups.

He said: “A good mental health policy will include any expectations or restrictions on the number of counselling sessions a student or staff member will be offered, alongside the expected waiting time. While a policy is of course only as good as the degree to which it is policed, without one there are no shared standards for how the mental health of students can be supported.”

Funding for student welfare services has remained the same in recent years but budget cuts have led to insufficient supply amid rising demand. Charlotte Snoxall, chair of the Association for University and College Counselling, a division of BACP, has suggested that the increase in students seeking help may in part be due to a decrease in stigma towards counselling, an increase in financial anxiety and improved access and promotion of services through technology. She said: “Research last summer found that 81 per cent of students found counselling helped them stay in their university or college course. Yet with our institutions under a great deal of financial pressure, the breadth of what counsellors can offer is limited. While this does not necessarily translate to a lack of student support, there may be fewer training opportunities available.”

An anonymous student from King’s College London approached her university’s counselling service after experiencing panic attacks. She said, “I was seen within 10 days but when the counsellor recommended I attend a group meeting for students with anxiety I was reluctant. I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of talking about problems with people who could potentially be in lectures with me for the next four years. I felt confused over whom to turn to next.” 

Rosie Tressler was welfare officer for Nottingham’s Student Union before starting work at Mental Wealth UK. Commenting on the need for an interlinked network of mental health services, she said: "Counselling services at universities across the UK provide students and staff with crucial support. There also needs to be a range of interventions available to students, as different approaches work for different people. Peer support is also important - I found my friends very supportive as we understood where one other was coming from."

University can be an exciting time of growth and new experiences, but also one of isolation and blighted expectations. Too often ‘minor’ issues are merely glanced at and brushed away, with staff failing to acknowledge how such problems and their treatment may be affecting the student. Universities must act now to reverse this psychology, provide a bridge between student support services, and realise the absolute necessity of mental wellbeing if their students are to achieve.

Names have been changed