Blogs 5 October

Best days of your life? How to give students better mental health support

Many young people have packed their bags and headed off for life in a shared house away from home, having become fully fledged university students. Where once the media reported this exodus from the family home in a light-hearted way, mocking students’ inability to wash clothes or fend for themselves, the mood today is starkly different.

According to a recent survey from UPP, a student accommodation provider, 87% of first year students find it difficult to cope with social and academic aspects of university life. A 2017 IPPR study ‘Not by Degrees: Improving Student Mental Health in the UK’s Universities’ has shown suicide rates among students have risen sharply.

In the same report, which surveyed UK higher education providers, 94% experienced a rise in demand for counselling services in the past five years; 61% reported a rise in demand of more than 25%. Just 29% had an explicit strategy on student mental health and wellbeing.

So why the apparently sudden crisis? Surely young people have always had to cope with pressures of academic life?

The transition to university is loaded with pressures that may not have affected those who didn’t have to pay for their further education. Today’s students are racking up serious debts while studying. Some will feel, as a consequence, a significant pressure to perform well.

This is a major generational difference, with young people saddled with financial worries on a far greater scale than ten or twenty years ago. Added to the isolation some students can feel at university – and the culture shock when they see what’s now expected of them – and it’s unsurprising that the pressure is taking its toll.

But that’s not the only change that has happened during this time. Where older generations may have suffered in silence or lived their lives in ‘quiet desperation’, today’s student is far more likely to disclose a medical condition to their university. In addition, anti-stigma campaigns and the parity of esteem agenda have played a huge role in encouraging openness.

It is not surprising then that universities are seeing growing demand for mental health support. In some places, demand is outstripping supply on a worrying scale. In one university, we assessed the demand from students, looking at the number of counsellors available and the time they had to dedicate to students. We concluded that if each student was to have a half hour session with a counsellor, the university would, after triage, be able to offer just 15% of those on the waiting list an appointment before the end of term.

This shows the extent of the unmet demand. Or does it?

If those students who have plucked up the courage to seek help do not end up seeing a counsellor then it’s probable that the severity of their issues will increase over time and they will require more intensive, costly treatment when they do eventually get to see someone. In the meantime they will have suffered considerably.

This situation is reflected nationally, with the NHS unable to satisfy universal growing demand for mental health services. Waiting lists continue to rise and thresholds for treatment continue to do the same.

It’s time that universities urgently assessed the welfare services they’re offering students. There should be a robust and transparent programme, which can scale quickly to meet the current need and provide accessible early support for students with emerging issues.

So it’s pleasing to see Universities UK recently issuing a new framework to help improve the mental health and wellbeing of university students. The step change framework is aimed at helping university leaders integrate good mental health practices across their organisation. Importantly, Universities UK recommends universities work closely with the NHS to better serve the mental health needs of their students.

Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England and chair of Universities UK’s Working Group on Mental Health in Higher Education, is playing a lead role here. His work in pushing for a real change in how universities view mental health is to be commended.

Another sign that change is happening is in the work of ProtectED, a UK higher education accreditation scheme looking at the wider role universities have in supporting the safety and wellbeing of their students — not only while they are on campus, but throughout their student experience. This recognition that universities have a responsibility far beyond pure academic achievement is a positive sign that students’ all-round needs are being seriously considered.
I believe it will be impossible to ignore digital services in providing the urgent and immediate support our students need.

Looking for support online is innate for a lot of young people, who instinctively turn to the internet to find help and advice. Which is why I see online counselling as a vital component in resolving the current crisis.

Online counselling complements face-to-face therapy in a way that can elevate a university’s ‘welfare package’ into something far broader and more widely accessible.

While current university face-to-face counselling provides crucially important service, it is inundated. Online counselling means some students may not need to go anywhere near a waiting list at all, with access to immediate support online. For those on a waiting list, many with access to online counselling will find the support they need. By the time they get their face-to-face appointment, many students will have started the journey to recovery; there is a good chance that early online help will have prevented them from reaching crisis.

Students with access to digital counselling can find peer-to-peer support too, which for some can be an easier way to give and receive help. For those who are not ready, or simply do not want to approach face to face services, it can be a lifeline.

The point being that online counselling can integrate with existing services, helping to relieve pressure from face-to-face counsellors, providing immediate professional help to those who desperately need it. Online counsellors can refer students to face-to-face or other specialist services where necessary. It can make serious inroads in to waiting lists, providing free support when a student needs it.

And if recent reports on student mental health are anything to go by, their need has never been greater.

Charles Elves
National Development Manager, XenZone