The fresher who feels lonely and far from his friends even though he is surrounded by new course-mates. The undergraduate struggling with depression and his dissertation. The master’s student whose relationship troubles are distracting her from her final project. The Phd researcher who is starting to crack under the stress of balancing her research, part-time job and childcare.
For students in similar situations, graduation can feel a long way off. Some probably fear they’ll never even get there.
But when they are finally standing in their gown and cap celebrating graduation day, it may have been the helping hand of their university counselling service that ensured they got there.
University counsellors are seeing an increase in demand for their services from students in need. In fact, 94% of higher education institutions reported an increase in demand for their counselling services in 2017.
The number of students declaring mental health problems when they arrive at university has increased by 73 per cent in the past four years, according figures obtained by The Times newspaper last month.
Anxiety and depression are two of the main reasons, students contact their university service, say some our members. But there’s more to it than just that.
Not just about mental health problems
“We’re seeing a wider range of issues now,” said Lucy Rowley, Deputy Head of the University of Nottingham’s Counselling Service.
“There’s a general theme of students coming to us with mental health problems. But they come because of life problems too. In ordinary everyday life we all experience crises, tragedy and loss – and that happens to students too.
“University counselling is not just about mental health. We’re the people who help students when they are lost and can’t cope with these life events. Life becomes more complicated once you get to university.”
Susie Ward is a student counsellor and peer-support co-ordinator at London School of Economics and Political Science. The university offers up to six counselling sessions for students, plus a daily drop in service.
“Students can feel displaced when they’ve moved to another city or country. It’s a huge adjustment. It’s important for them to know that the counselling service is there.
“For some it can be hard to ask for support. They’re afraid of showing vulnerability as they are so competitive, and career focused. They need to see that it’s a strength to ask for help,” she adds.
She hopes this is a message that will stay with them as they go on to their careers.
“We hope they will have a good enough experience of counselling here, that they will access it again later in life if they ever need it.”
As well as one-to-one counselling sessions for those who need them, many university counselling services are offering other types of support too.
Peer support programmes and workshops to help students develop coping strategies and manage issues such as stress are among them.
Need for qualified counsellors
There’s also the wellbeing provision at universities, which can assist with self-care, nutrition, exercise and developing a healthier lifestyle that will also help students’ minds, as well as their bodies.
“For some students, advice on how to look after themselves will be sufficient. Others will need a very short-term focus and psycho-educational tools, and that doesn’t need to be from a trained and experienced counsellor.
“But these services have to be supplemented by a team of qualified, experienced counsellors. There has to be someone available to delve beneath what is on the surface,” stressed Caroline Dower, Head of the Counselling Service at Durham University.
“It’s a real tragedy when a student is not able to access the opportunities available to them at university because of what they’re experiencing with their mental health,” she says.
“A student facing this sort of distress needs to feel really well understood and needs the intervention of someone with the skills to help them navigate their way through the distress.”
Peter Eldrid is one of four full-time BACP-accredited counsellors at Brunel University.
The student-focused service offers single therapeutic sessions for up to 50 minutes, booked on a session by session basis.
The team include counsellors from different modalities, and Peter is a solution-focused counsellor.
“I look at what the student’s situation is, and what they’re doing. We talk about when they have a good day, what’s happened. For many, it’s about finding out about themselves and what works for them. It helps them get to a better place,” he said.
Peter also runs workshops across different parts of the university, ranging from ‘how to look after yourself’ sessions for trainee teachers or social work students, to ‘how to recognise the signs of stress’ for business school staff.
At Bangor University, Head of Counselling Kate Tindle, is working on a student-led mental health strategy, with a series of focus groups planned for the next few months asking students themselves what they want from the support offered by the university.
She’s determined that what her service offers is driven by the needs and wishes of students.
Need buy-in from students
“We need that buy-in from students. We need real engagement and to get the conversations going so we can provide the best possible service that will help them.”
The service has already come up with a range of different innovative ways to help students – including dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) to support suicidal students, and relationship-focussed group therapy sessions.
“We’ve got to be diverse in how we operate, and respect that students find different approaches helpful. We’ve also got to help students build their own resilience.”
But it all comes down to one thing. And that is helping the student navigate their own personal, emotional and mental health problems so they can make the most of their university experience, as well as what lies ahead after graduation.
It’s summed up by Durham Head of Counselling Caroline.
“Counselling is a stepping stone. That little bit of extra support to help them access everything else around them – the social, educational and professional opportunities available at university.”