This may seem like a controversial statement. After all, aren’t we all aware of the rise in mental health issues among students across the UK? Haven’t we read about students being unable to access vital mental health support services while studying?
The point Professor Steve West, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England, was making when he said hiring more counsellors was not the answer to universities’ problems was slightly more complex.
He was saying that it’s time we thought differently about how we provide mental health support. He talked about taking a whole university approach with the right mix of support, systems, training and partnerships: in other words, face-to-face counselling shouldn’t be the only way students – or anyone else for that matter – can get help.
That’s not to say that counsellors aren’t doing an incredible job in stressful circumstances. They are.
But simply hiring more therapists ignores the fact that some students don’t want face-to-face help. It denies those who feel weighed down by terrible stigma. It doesn’t take account of those who want support outside traditional working hours. Or those who are unable to talk about sensitive and painful issues, but who can write them down.
Some of the stories in the media recently have told heart-breaking stories of students suffering terribly and dropping out of university – or of student suicides – many of whom were unknown to Student Services.
As I speak to various universities, the conversation often involves such ‘hard to reach’ groups and what can be done to help them engage. And there is the problem: we need students to feel they can more easily access and engage with professional support without stigma or barriers and without a waiting list.
Online therapy which doesn’t ask a person’s name can be the bridge that enables students to come forward. Anonymity can remove the barriers in developing the trust needed for students to share often deeply personal information. Allowing students to remain anonymous and in charge of their therapeutic journey is critical in allowing the therapeutic relationship to flourish.
Whatever package of student welfare measures a university offers, I believe it isn’t complete without anonymous online counselling provision.
And that’s why I agree with Professor West: it may look like we need more of what we already have, but perhaps we don’t.
As Edward de Bono once said “You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper”.
We need to keep doing what we’ve always done but also, step sideways, and start again.
National Development Manager