Anyone working in Higher Education knows the pressures that this semester brings for students, especially those who are starting for the first time. Students are excited at the start of this new phase of their lives. Academics have their own pressures of teaching and research. Administrators juggle the needs of the institution, academics and students. Student Services work hard to ensure that students are aware of all the various forms of support available to help them with their careers, housing, student loans, difficult landlords, occupational health needs for medical students. The list is lengthy.
University counselling services have changed over the last twenty years. Probably the greatest change has been greater evidence of its value and impact in support of learning, retention and employability1. No one is immune from the impact of early childhood experiences, the cocktail of genes they inherit, life events or bad choices. Of course those influences have always been there, however the difference in the last decade has been the increasing willingness of students to ask for help. Counselling generally has become more embedded as an acceptable force for good in the minds of the public and is an expectation for students. Counselling changes lives, and for hundreds of students annually in every university this is most certainly the case.
The impact of this cultural shift, and a greater willingness for students to seek help, has been that the resource requirements to Universities have become more visible and pressing. Doing things well costs money, and should be part of the contract with students along with everything else. This of course then means that priorities have to be made and for decision makers often their initial response is ‘what is going wrong with what is being delivered?’ This is in many cases follows negative and often tragic media coverage.
Counselling managers have become accustomed over the years to constantly justifying why waiting lists are so long. The implication always has been it’s because managers are inefficient, or counsellors are not seeing enough students
Organisations such as BACP Universities and Colleges division and Heads of University Counselling Services (HUCS) have worked hard to counteract the false premise that it’s the fault of counsellors or managers. Several counselling services have also been willing to adapt their working and delivery styles and to experiment with alternative models for engaging successfully and importantly still professionally with students. Counsellors have adapted to the increased demand and have demonstrated to critics a willingness to creatively evolve to support students and the institution.
I believe that at this point in time, as the arguments in support of the value of counselling strengthened, the need to find someone to “blame” for rising numbers seeking help shifted to students. They have become the “snowflake generation” who were not tough enough, melting because they can’t take the pressure, and have a sense of entitlement exceeding the fees they pay. Resilience training has become more common to counteract this perceived inadequacy.
The parallel between blaming the victim of a sexual assault for the way they dressed, and blaming someone with a mental health difficulty because they are not resilient and are part of the snowflake generation, seems to me to be very striking.
Universities UK published Step Change2 and it is to be welcomed that Universities use the opportunity to strategically look at their responsibilities for students' wellbeing, including mental health difficulties. It has unfortunately resulted in some Universities making choices that professionals dealing with mental health difficulties rightly regard with some dismay, as they could well be detrimental to students.
As counsellors we know that words are important. The trend in the UK is moving towards student support and wellbeing teams. Financial issues, housing issues, uncertainty about one's future, as well as the kinds of issues that typically counsellors see may affect wellbeing. A student (or a parent) would hope that the advice given by any of these teams was provided by staff who were professional, competent and well trained.
Universities would not consider the reduction of careers staff qualifications, competencies or professional standards because of the importance paid to the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE)3 survey as a marketing and recruitment tool. University as a safe, welcoming environment where learning can be supported by a wide range of professional interventions such as careers, financial advice, immigration advice, student occupational health and counselling when things do go wrong, should be highly prized for marketing and recruitment.
Given all that we know about the rising numbers of students seeking support for mental health issues, it is inevitable that that universities will continue to look for creative solutions. It must not however, be regarded simply as a cost cutting initiative by those removed from the day to day reality of student distress. It is not safe to outsource mental health in the same way you would estates functions.
Having managed a well regarded and creative counselling and wellbeing team for 20 years I placed high value on having this provision embedded in the institution. It is essential for trained counsellors to be involved in the assessment of students and the delivery of any professional therapeutic intervention. This would include drop in appointments, telephone appointments, face-to-face appointments or online appointments delivery of training. All of these therapeutic activities must be able to withstand the scrutiny, regulation and accountability of professional standards provided by organisations such as BACP.
When it comes to mental health interventions, there must be no compromise. They must be delivered by trained, qualified and professionally accountable staff.
Students have high regard for counselling and want quick access to it because they know it will help their ability to learn, function and importantly graduate. In the past they just dropped out of university often without the university even asking ‘why?’
The time is now for those in the counselling profession working in HE to have belief. The rise in numbers of students seeking help really is a success story you have contributed to. That should be celebrated; because, we know those students needing help have always been there in the university population.
Rather than focus on whether a team is called a wellbeing or counselling team, it is preferable to respect and value what each can offer differently in terms if diversity to the experience of students, because we must be seen to evolve. There is an opportunity here to significantly enhance provision for students and we must continue to work with others to seize this opportunity and challenge what we perceive as unsafe for students.
World-class universities need world class wellbeing, counselling and mental health support for students. There is a moment in time here when we can influence this by clearly demonstrating how we contribute to institutional aims and ultimately society at large and the economy of the UK.
I am delighted to be able to support BACP’s campaign and encourage those working in the sector to do the same. Engage with the opportunity this provides and challenge the undoubted threats posed by cuts. After all no one dies at university because they had poor careers advice however, they may if mental health support is delivered badly or on the cheap.
John Cowley is a BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor (Retired) and BACP Fellow
1 BACP Student mental health briefing
Views expressed in this article are the views of the writer, not necessarily the views of BACP, the contributor’s employer or the publisher, unless specifically stated. Publication does not imply endorsement of the writer’s views. Reasonable care has been taken to avoid errors but no liability will be accepted for any errors that may occur.