By Sophie Paterson
University, we are often told, is meant to be some of the best years of your life.
In saying this, however, many are overlooking the consequences that the intense pressures of maintaining a social life whilst juggling academic commitments can lead to.
It is certainly the case that the atmosphere of intense pressure that such academically-esteemed universities as our own can breed is often to the detriment of students’ mental health. Why then, if this is such common knowledge, does Durham University not provide adequate support and provisions for students suffering with their mental health?
University is meant to be the best years of your life
It must first be stated that where the University does have systems in place, they are remarkably under-advertised and oversubscribed. Despite the fact that, according to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health related issue in a given year, the University counselling service only has the equivalent of 5.4 full-time counsellors and 2 mental health advisors.
This lack of suitable and adequate mental health support is not a problem that is exclusive to Durham. It has recently been reported that, in the past eighteen months alone, seven students at Bristol University have taken their own lives.
It is an insult to students that universities don’t take mental health seriously
These reports have raised concerns that universities are not equipped to handle rising numbers of students expressing struggles with their mental health.
It is an insult and a disservice to the students that their universities do not take their pastoral care seriously – it shouldn’t be the case that universities only take the initiative to develop better pastoral support once students have taken their own lives. There should be support systems in place, and more transparency in terms of what services universities have to offer.
Durham is unique in terms of the welfare support on offer
In their defence, Durham is fairly unique in terms of the welfare support systems it offers. These systems often stem first from the student body itself with welfare services within colleges as well as University-wide schemes such as ‘Nightline’. Support also comes in the form of the college staff themselves, dedicated student support advisors who help to signpost and support students with any kind of issues during their time at university. Beyond this, the University Counselling Service also offers students face-to-face support sessions.
Indeed, having personally made use of many of the welfare systems the University has to offer, it has been made evident time and time again that whilst help is available, it is highly sought-after and waiting lists tend to be extensive.
Though the University counselling service can be truly useful, waiting lists may prevent students from being seen immediately.
70% of children and adolescents do not seek treatment at an early enough age
For this reason, students tend to not even bother registering themselves for these services due to the wait, or the fact that they perceive their problems are not severe enough to warrant counselling.
The Mental Health Foundation has estimated that 70% of children and adolescents do not seek treatment at early enough an age, and barriers to seeking treatment, such as the ones students face at university, only worsen the issue. It is also crucial to have specialist advisors that are equipped to deal with specific mental illnesses to ensure that, especially as there are a maximum number of counselling sessions, students get the help that they so desperately need.
In simple terms, more funding and resources need to be funnelled into these services. It is promising that the Counselling Service has planned to increase its overall expenditure, but the University needs to recognise that investment into student psychological wellbeing has to be one of their utmost priorities.
With mental health issues in the student population on the rise, Durham as a University has to take accountability and ensure that its students are able to deal with the academic pressures exerted on them during their studies. We need more counsellors, especially those specialised in Mental Health and Sexual Violence, so that when students are admitted to the Counselling service they can be given the appropriate treatment.
The University should also provide coherent information on what the university and the NHS can offer beyond 6 counselling sessions. When I finished my first round of counselling in first year, I felt like I had been abruptly dropped by the service with no signposting signalling what steps I should take next. Without these follow-up support systems, the positive effects of counselling services can be limited and short-term.
The University needs to better advertise what services are available
Part of the problem also lies within the lack of clarity in terms of what services are available to students. Online, the Counselling Service’s website has an abundance of resources and self-help links that students should be directed to as early as first year. It is essential that we do not wait for students to reach crisis point before we provide them with treatment, or whatever resources might be suitable. Ideally, freps and colleges should make the options available to their students clearer from the very beginning of their degree.
Although the organisation Talking Change runs ‘Academic Wellbeing’ sessions throughout the year, which make use of CBT techniques, these could be far better advertised. If this were the case, I am sure that they would have more of an impact. Additionally, the skills sessions that the Disability Service offers can be helpful in encouraging individuals with existing mental health conditions to develop their own techniques for managing stress associated with studies, but many don’t approach the service because they don’t know exactly what can be gained.
Often, these are discovered by word-of-mouth or only recommended to students once they reach a crisis point, when in reality people should be aware of the access they have to these programmes as early as possible in order to reduce the severity of the problem. University mental health services undoubtedly do help improve the lives of students, but they can only succeed if they reach the students that desperately need them.
We need to make sure we help students before they reach crisis point
Most students are encouraged to refer to college welfare or student support officers who can then inform them of what services are available; however, this lack of anonymity could be what prevents them from seeking help in the first place. By educating students on what options are available to them in a more transparent and coherent way, one could hope that more would be able to benefit from these resources. As students, we are certainly lucky to go to a University that does have such a multitude of resources available, but it’s crucial that the available support structures are presented to students in a coherent way.
Just as the University encourages students to sign up to the University Health Centre ahead of arrival, they also have to take responsibility in ensuring that the students are equipped to handle any mental health problems they may encounter during their studies. It could be as easy as colleges including a comprehensive leaflet detailing the different, specific types of support that the University does offer. Mental health should be prioritised as part of the curriculum as early as Freshers’ Week, by encouraging students to establish support systems in both college and the Disability Service.
If students are made more aware of the multitude of services that are at their disposal at any given time, perhaps fewer students would reach crisis point.
Photograph: Katie Butler