Every September, over 2.5 million of our brightest minds embark on one of life’s greatest opportunities. Starting university. As exciting as the time can be, it also can be a huge life shock. For many students, this will be the first time they are tasked with living away from home. New surroundings, new people and having to wash up after yourself. All daunting challenges. For those on the outside looking in, the university experience is the ideal prepping ground for adult life, teaching both independence and survival skills. But what happens when it all gets too much for a student? Deadlines, money issues and being homesick can all have an effect on the mental health of students, increasing the feeling of pressure in an already challenging environment.
Today marks the 12th Anniversary of the University Mental Health and Wellbeing Day (UMHAN). Beginning in 2002, UMHAN is held on the third Wednesday of February, the aim is to get those from educational institutions involved in ensuring the wellbeing of both staff and students with mental health difficulties. Previous legislation has often meant that universities where tasked with conceiving and implementing their own approach to students with mental health issues. Due to the rise in the number of students suffering mental health problems, it has become clear that some Universities are failing their students.
A report by the National Union of Students found that during the university experience, as much as 1 in 4 students will suffer from mental health problems. Of the estimated 2.5 million new university starters, 625,000 will experience mental health problems. This is an exceedingly large number and calls into question why there has been no greater government involvement on the issue. Even more alarming has been the information released by the Royal college of Psychiatrists which has confirmed that university students are more at risk from mental health problems than other young people their age. Although many universities do offer a counselling service to all students and staff, further investigation shows that resources are being woefully stretched to almost breaking point.
Dr. Mark Phippen, head of counselling at Cambridge University, has suggested that in a typical university scenario one counsellor could be responsible for up to four or five thousand students. That is an extremely high proportion of students for just one counsellor to deal with. The impact is not only felt by students unable to access services, but also those staff who are often overwhelmed with the volume of students they have to attend to. In addition, the Royal College of Psychiatrists have reported that funding cuts in this department continue even with these startling statistics. Since 2008, there has been a reported 33% increase in the demand for counselling services simultaneously highlighting the increased pressures students are under as well as the need for resources to be allocated. With more than a quarter of students who have experienced mental health problems not receiving the necessary support, it is imperative that more is done to help those in need before it is too late.
Long waiting lists, inadequate staff support and lack of funding are some of the issues surrounding student mental health but there does seem to be a shifting of mind-set amongst those in power. Dr Grant, from the universities representative body Universities UK, has confirmed that a good practice guideline model for student mental health and Wellbeing has been created and it will be followed by all universities that are part of the body. Although this is a small step, it must be recognised as an important one nonetheless. Already there is a sense from many universities that the issue of student mental health is being addressed more seriously. At Royal Holloway University, there has been a marked overhaul to their admissions policy to ensure applicants with mental health problems are judged on their own criteria. Using a twin-tracked application process, the university is able to judge prospective applicants on both exam results as well as health needs. This enables the university to assess what specific care each applicant requires and whether the university can provide the appropriate services.
Furthermore, UMHAN believes that through such simple measures as installing access ramps, hearing loops and making sure factors such as lecture theatres are properly adapted, students with learning disabilities lives will be incredibly enhanced. Although the attitudes towards tackling student mental health have improved, on the evidence there is still more that can and should be done. It is time we removed the stigma associated with mental health to ensure all those who are suffering are given the support and care necessary for them to lead a fulfilled life.
In the words of Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, “Nobody should suffer alone”