844 students accessed University Counselling services in 2008/2009: Photo: Flickr / dfataustralianaid

Counsel your plans in term three

The number of students approaching University of Warwick Student Support Services has nearly doubled over the last five years, a Freedom of Information request to the University has revealed. With essay deadlines, job/internship applications and exam revision all clamouring for students’ attention in term three, it is the busiest time for the services.

Exactly 844 students accessed University counselling and mental health services in the academic year 2008/09, a number that has nearly doubled to 1,466 in the year 2012/13. According to these figures, approximately 1 in every 16 students sought face-to-face counselling from the University last year.

Across the UK the number of students seeking counselling has risen by 33 per cent, and a recent NUS study revealed that 20 per cent of students consider themselves to have a mental health problem. After reaching out via social media, I had an overwhelming response from a lot of very different people, all with very different experiences.
When I spoke to students about the figure increase, responses were generally positive. Most commented that they felt that mental health awareness has improved over the last few years, which makes it easer to approach services, and that the increase is symptomatic of awareness.

“I’d guess that the rising figures are because there is far less stigma attached to seeking help for psychological problems than there was even a few years ago,” one student commented. “In my final round of counselling in my third year I felt far more comfortable sharing what I was doing. Perhaps because I knew people better, had done for longer, but I still felt that it was more generally accepted.”

One student even suggested that personal tutors have become more aware of how to deal with mental health situations. For many, counselling has been a vital lifeline through their time at the University. One student found group counselling especially vital, “I found this without a doubt one of the most helpful things I have done to help myself,” she said.

“We spoke about whatever we wanted to, with a focus on how we felt about what was going on, any difficulties we were currently facing, and what we wanted from the group to try and help us move forward… Everyone was open, friendly, and really helped me look at things positively, and feel better about what was going on.”

One student I spoke to described her experiences and what she has learned from counselling: “Counselling is not the way to get rid of an issue. You will not be ‘cured’ after a few hours of chatting. What you will find, though, is that you now have more tools to think about your problem with. You now have a space of acknowledgment, and a language to analyse it in.”

“You have to go into a session aware that you alone are responsible for the outcome of your counselling experience. To get the most out of counselling, you really have to be determined to address your problem… I learned a lot about myself, and having that safe and structured space was integral to taking the first steps of accepting the issue as a problem.”

“It was the first time I’ve ever used counselling and I’m so glad I did it,” said another. “It was such a supportive environment so useful to have a place to go for one hour a week which didn’t involve flat politics, University work or my parents. I didn’t experience a long wait and pretty much always managed to get an appointment with my counsellor, so it was great in that respect.”

However, others have struggled to get such regular sessions, and the wait for some of the services can be quite high. One student told me how he had waited three weeks to get an appointment, and suggested that sometimes the cause can be sidelined in an effort to treat symptoms. “Maybe with more regular sessions, that can work, but at the time it seemed detrimental,” he commented. “I wouldn’t go back now if I felt as I did when I decided to go in the first place.”
Although many students found their experiences helpful, they felt that there are some holes in the system. Several commented on the isolated nature of the services, with no follow-up period or post-counselling support.

“Being in this post-counselling bubble is a bit daunting – you have to go it alone, knowing there won’t be anything to keep you in line… I think the service could really benefit from offering follow-up sessions, and really should be monitoring students once they have been dismissed.”

“[The services] could provide more specific counselling, and more personally tailored to individual circumstances. It could provide a follow-up service, or things like drop-in session times.” Another also added that student groups and group counselling sessions could be better advertised, along with any services outside of the University that could provide more specific help.

One student in particular described her experiences of sessions as a ‘quick fix’, which has led to relapses. “I think it was helpful at the time. And it meant I didn’t quit or have a full breakdown. Which would have happened otherwise… The one criticism I have of the service is… that they just let me go without question,” she said.

“It’s very hard when you first go, because you don’t have to state in your application form why you are going,” mentioned another student. “You have to be patient with the service – they do a stellar job, but the variety of issues they help students tackle is probably quite large. It might be better if you had to outline your reasons for going in the first application form – I feel that might help them allocate your counsellor better, and also provide them with some information and preparation before your first session. The first session is so, so hard, and such a scary leap to make, I think it would be so much easier if they were aware of what you were coming to them with.”

Better communication between mental health services and educational departments, and mental health training for personal and residential tutors were also suggested. As one student commented: “Often one bad meeting about problems you’re facing can be enough to stop you ever looking for help again.”

I also interviewed a member of University staff about the Student Support Services, who was not surprised by the increase from their experiences within their department. They have noticed a “definite increase” in students seeking help and suffering from depression, and a “gradual increase” in these numbers over the past five years. They cited “a lot more pressure now on people to get a 2:1… [Although] things are getting better.” They told me how students who narrowly miss out on a 2:1 are sometimes also given a supportive letter from the University as of the last few years.
“I don’t think it’s the financial side,” they said when I asked them whether the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees could be a contributing factor. “There wasn’t such a big jump then, it’s been more of a gradual increase… It’s just one more thing on top of general pressures… some of the students who are putting themselves under the most pressure are the ones getting 80s and 90s.”

They described their experience of referring students to the Student Support Services as generally very positive, with pretty good waiting times on average – the only issue being in term 3, when long delays can occur. “The biggest thing is just admitting they’ve got a problem,” they said is the main issue with students. Temporary withdrawals are used more often than they used to be, and department do attempt to provide academic support during these times. “We’re very aware that students coming back need support,” they said.

Although there is no direct training for staff and tutors, experience helps staff to identify which students are in greatest need: “You can tell if someone needs immediate help.” They did, however, suggest that having one member of staff trained in each department to deal with these situations could be useful. “The main thing that personal tutors need to know is to not try and deal with it themselves,” they said, if personal tutors do not feel that they are experienced enough to deal with specific situations.

“The main thing is that the Student Support Services do a very good job, but they are stretched for time,” they said, describing it as an “overstretched department.” They also raised the issue of overseas students – “the biggest problem for overseas students is looking for help.” They suggested that overseas students can sometimes come from a culture of not telling people their problems and see depression as a weakness.

Thankfully the services are there for students who need them. However, the only way that the stigma will be removed from mental health issues is by talking about them and understanding them. Most of the students I spoke to did not admit to many people that they used the support services, suggesting that it is perhaps still a taboo subject. Hopefully these figures are an attest that students will at some point feel able to discuss mental health issues openly.

For those who feel they need someone to talk to, Nightline is a student-run and confidential support service that can be called on 02476 417 668 or found between Old and New Rootes on campus.

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