Despite the stigma that still surrounds mental health, it’s a topic that’s increasingly being brought up in daily conversation. However there’s still a lot to be done. Mental health affects us all. One in four people suffer from mental health problems each year, so it’s likely that either you or someone you know suffers from mental health issues. As February 7 marked #TimeToTalk day, it’s a good opportunity to start a conversation with the people around you about mental health.
Research suggests that suicide is now higher among students in the UK than in the general population of the same age group. It is no wonder, then, that mental health is ever-growing in importance when it comes to university policies and spending. But there are reports that mental health support in universities is in crisis. Information released at the end of 2018 shows that students at 100 universities had to wait up to four months to access counselling and mental health support. The importance of solid support systems in universities is undeniable in the light of student mental health, and the University of Warwick is no exception. The help offered at Warwick comes in the form of initial evaluation with the Wellbeing Support Services team and can lead to counselling sessions, involvement with the Warwick Sport team’s Health and Wellbeing programme and more.
Research suggests that suicide is now higher among students in the UK than in the general population of the same age group
University support systems offer both short and long-term support that can be accessed through various means. Departmental support can lead to support directly in seminars and from mentors. Although mitigating circumstances and extensions cannot be granted by personal or seminar tutors, guidance can be given and departmental structures are in place. One student commented that their home department takes mental health “seriously” and “provide all of the support they can”. Not everyone, however, has had positive experiences when talking to members of their department about mental health issues. One student, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke to The Boar and described one of her seminar tutors as being “short and cold” after she confided in her about mental health issues. Her confession to the tutor was the first time this student had confided in anyone about “anything like that” and the response has made the student feel “awful”. Another student, responding to our mental health questionnaire, commented that their personal tutor is simply “not approachable”. These experiences come after a loss of confidence in personal tutors last year when a Freedom of Information request by The Boar revealed that staff had only two hours of mental health training.
Professional help from members of staff who have more training is available through the University’s Counselling Service, which offers free sessions to students. These sessions are 50 minutes long and have long waiting lists, with each student being offered an average of three to four sessions in total. 60.5% of the 95 respondents to The Boar’s mental health questionnaire had accessed the University Counselling Service, many commenting on the waiting times for the service. This delay has serious implications as, in the face of a lack of support, some students have suffered. One student commented that the “waiting time meant that my health had deteriorated greatly” with another stating that they had become suicidal between the arrangement of their session and date of it. Others commented on the appointments being “hard to get” and that the waiting time is “ridiculously long”.
The attitude towards experiences of the actual Counselling Service are mixed. One student commented that the Wellbeing Support Services could be helpful but that the counselling itself is “extremely dissatisfying”. The student explained that the counsellor had been what hindered their experience. “She was quite judgmental and even a bit rude,” the student stated, despite having been referred by both their GP and the wellbeing services to this professional for help. Others commented that it was unhelpful, feeling that students are not “taken seriously unless you are suicidal”; some commented it was “useless”. Despite this, some students responded to the counselling service positively and commented that it offers “good quality” sessions and that the counsellors encountered are “incredibly kind”.
#TimetoTalk day advocates perhaps one of the most important support structures that exists: your peers
Although the counselling service and capability of some staff members meets criticism, the responses to this questionnaire detail that just 37.1% of students find university mental health services to be “somewhat helpful”. Provisions were described by one student as “discreet, convenient [and] very welcoming”. As with all mental illness, the solution will never be straight-forward, and it is unlikely that people will find solace in one programme. Patients often receive a combination of treatments for mental health including medication, cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling. As I, and many others who have experienced mental illness have been told, it is unlikely you will find anything to make you feel completely better.
Through personal experience with the university’s support system I can say that – whilst I found some aspects of the service were helpful – it still left a lot to be desired. My experiences may or may not correlate with those of others but the incidents I have experienced have played on my mind since. For example, my point of contact on a wellbeing programme emailed me before my first meeting, admitting that they had forgotten to organise the session we had agreed upon. This email was received on the day of the meeting and, as someone who suffers with depression, only caused me to feel unimportant. Errors like this may seem small but the importance of remembering students on programmes such as this is vital, as those involved are already vulnerable. Much like the other respondents of the questionnaire, I have also experienced long waiting times or meetings with professionals both within the Counselling Service and the Wellbeing department. However, the services that are in place can be accessed by those in need and perhaps it is the existence of these structures, which can be accessed for free, that provide solace.
I think sometimes we can underestimate how helpful people are willing to be when it comes to supporting one another
These services can be helpful in relation to studying but I have learnt that professional help can only go so far. #TimetoTalk day advocates perhaps one of the most important support structures that exists: your peers. Being open and honest with those who see you daily and know you personally means that support structures can be built into normal life. This does not mean that everyone has to be a mental health expert – and this by no means substitutes crisis help – but simple steps can be taken to improve quality of life. The charity Time To Change suggests asking twice in order to create conversation around mental health as the question “how are you?” is often a default greeting met with an answer of reflex. Recognition and support is important and can be found from peers only if conversation is encouraged and received well. Sociology student Lucy Cassels explains that, after struggling with panic and anxiety attacks, she turned to her coursemates in a subject group chat. She received “kind and supportive” replies from fellow students and was privately messaged by second and third years. Lucy decided not to pursue official support through the university, feeling that the support she received from peers was enough to improve her quality of life. “I think sometimes we can underestimate how helpful people are willing to be when it comes to supporting one another.” Allowing yourself to be vulnerable can be daunting but Lucy found the experience was a “relief”.
Opening up to those around us can sometimes be the first step in improving mental health. Often the reassurance of friends and family can do a lot to build up the courage to seek professional help if it’s needed.