Rising numbers of anxious students need counselling and support for mental health problems

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Rising numbers of anxious students need counselling and support for mental health problems

By Sean Coughlan – 30 September 2015 – BBC News

Record numbers of students are beginning university this term, making the big emotional step of a new independent life, with many living away from home for the first time.

But there are warnings of rising numbers of students struggling to cope with life on campus, with sharp rises in the demand for student counselling services.

And there are questions about whether universities are providing enough support for emotional and mental health problems.
Ruth Caleb, chair of Universities UK’s mental well-being working group, says counselling services are facing an annual rise in demand of about 10%.

She estimates the use of counselling usually ranges between 5% and 10% of students, depending on the university, which would suggest at least 115,000 students are seeking help.

Sir Anthony Seldon, vice chancellor of Buckingham University, says this is a “massive problem” and universities have been “negligent” in accepting their pastoral responsibilities.

“Universities are not always honest about admitting the extent of the problems they have. They need to change, they need to take their responsibilities to students far more carefully.”

A report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, using anonymised data, found a rapid increase in demand for counselling, with one institution seeing an annual increase of more than 50%.

This analysis, published before the new term, showed mental health problems on campus had “increased dramatically” in recent years, rising from about 8,000 to 18,000 in the four years to 2012-13.

The study also warned students want help with more serious problems. Instead of homesickness or relationships, they are increasingly suffering from “anxiety, depression or low mood. Additionally, increasing numbers of students are at high risk of harming themselves”.

Anxiety culture

student counselling manchester chorlton fallowfield rusholmeThe University of Reading says there has been a 20% year-on-year increase in students wanting help from counsellors.

The university’s head of well-being, Alicia Pena Bizama, says students feel under more pressure.

As well as perennial problems of loneliness and relationships, she says there are worries about the rising cost of studying, fear of failing to live up to expectations and uncertainties about job prospects.

“There is a cultural change in being a student,” says Dr Caleb, who is head of counselling at Brunel University.

Instead of a stereotype of student life being about long lazy days, she says increasing numbers experience anxiety and stress, beyond the “transitional” problems of leaving home.

Student life is also affected by wider social changes. Dr Caleb says there is a pattern of parents splitting up when their child goes to university and sometimes selling the family home, which can leave young people feeling vulnerable and unsupported.

‘It can save people’s lives’

Universities are getting better at responding to mental health problems and making it easier to access counselling services. But Dr Caleb says there needs to be more consistency in the quality of services available.

She says that at her university, “we will knock on a door at night if there are concerns. It can save people’s lives”.

But what is so different now about young people’s lives? Is there really such a culture of anxiety?

Meredith Leston, a student at St Anne’s College, Oxford, suffered from anorexia and depression in her first year.

“People talk about ‘snapping’ and that is what happened to me. I just couldn’t take the pressure and the whole new realm of expectations.”

She says part of the problem is the ever-present role of social media, fuelling a culture of constant comparison and a sense of inadequacy.

“As well as being a first class student, you have to be a first class person, you have to be performing socially, academically. It’s a nightmare. You’re constantly on.”

‘Suffering in silence’

Ms Leston says she received help from her university, but she is worried about the patchy provision for some students.

“I do worry that a lot of students are suffering in silence at the moment.”

“I think there is a very strong stigma still surrounding mental health issues, but even in the few years I’ve been at university, I’ve seen a slow change, people are beginning to talk about it.”

Following her own experiences, she is supporting a mental health charity, Student Minds, and has founded her own campaign, Meeting of Minds.

Sir Anthony Seldon recently became a university head after working as a head teacher in the independent school sector.

And he says universities have much catching up to do on student well-being.

Sir Anthony warns some universities might see their status in terms of research and league tables, with the danger they view undergraduates as an “inconvenience”.

But he says they cannot ignore the rising incidence of problems such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

“Universities, with some exceptions, haven’t been fully owning up to the extent of the malaise among young people. Or understanding what can be done to ameliorate these problems.”

“I don’t think universities mean to be negligent. But if not deliberately, they are being negligent, they are not accepting their responsibility for these young people. And needless avoidable problems are occurring all the way up to suicide.”

‘Sink or swim’

The increase in tuition fees has also changed students’ expectations.

Universities are now competing on the quality of their services as well as academic prowess. And students expect to have support for emotional problems.

Three student protests and occupations this year have called for better counselling services.

At the University of Reading student welfare has been made a priority, including a long-term project to monitor well-being.

Marina Della Giusta, responsible for the research, says students are “definitely feeling more stressed”.

“The factors that really drive it are financial stress, university education has become more expensive. And job prospects are more uncertain, so they’re not sure whether it’s going to pay off.”

The other constant thorn is the expectation to be seen to be having a good time, with social media turning social lives into a place of competition rather than relaxation.

But the increase in using counselling services also reflected a greater willingness to ask for help – and Dr Della Giusta says universities are moving away from a “sink or swim” attitude.

“There’s no point turning out students who have a first if they are going to be unhappy and unable to function as human beings out there in the workplace or in their personal life.”

Universities UK says it issued guidance this year to all universities on how to support students with mental health problems.

“Universities take student mental health very seriously. For some students, an unfamiliar higher education environment can be stressful, particularly for those who already have an underlying illness,” says chief executive Nicola Dandridge.

“Some students are reluctant to disclose their difficulties, which can also present a challenge for universities seeking to support them. However, the development of policies and anti-stigma campaigns is now beginning to address both these issues.”

Read the original article by Sean Coughlan here: BBC News – Rising numbers of stressed students seek help


Related Student Counselling Resources

  1. Helpguide.com – Anxiety Attacks and Anxiety Disorders
  2. Patient.info – Anxiety Disorders. Symptoms of Severe Anxiety. Treatment for Anxiety
  3. Counselling Service – The University of Manchester
  4. Counselling Service – Manchester Metropolitan University
  5. Inner Changes Private Counselling and Psychotherapy Service

Rising numbers of anxious students need counselling and support for mental health problems

Inner Changes offers private counselling and psychotherapy services in the South Manchester area.

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