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Student Blogs: My perspective on university mental health services

Exam periods, essay writing, presentations, tuition fees and student loans are only some aspects of university life that may cause students to experience stress or to develop mental health problems. This is why mental health services were established and made readily accessible within campus grounds.

According to a survey carried out by the National Union of Students in 2015, eight out of ten students claim they had experienced mental health problems during the previous year. More than half of the students interviewed who experienced mental health problems did not seek, or did not know where to find, support. Three out of ten students also had suicidal thoughts.

This sparks concern. Why did so many students not seek support despite needing it? Counselling centres in universities are supposed to give students the opportunity to disclose and put out there their problems, their darkest thoughts and secrets if they feel the need to. Perhaps, a reason why they do not look for help is that they do not consider counselling sessions to be of contribution to their wellbeing.

My experience

As a former second-year international student at a British university, during my first year I experienced a difficult period, but I was not even aware of the existence of counselling centres on campus. Where I am from, universities offer nowhere near as many facilities and support as they do in the United Kingdom, and counselling is certainly not one of these facilities. Only in my second year, through a friend who had attended counselling sessions, did I find out about this possibility.

Soon after, I filled in the application form to attend counselling sessions, I was contacted by the centre to schedule a first appointment. This was done with remarkable efficiency and professionalism. However, after my second session, I was told that I only had three or four more appointments I could schedule. After that, I would have had to wait months before I could apply again.

The majority of universities in the United Kingdom offer a limited number of counselling sessions. In most cases between four and six sessions. Sometimes, students can be offered group counselling once the individual appointments are over. From a personal and subjective point of view, four to six hours of counselling are of no use to perceive any improvement.

To gain her professional opinion, I spoke to Dr. Manuela Corona, psychiatrist at a private practice in Rome, Italy. She claims that so few sessions cannot be enough to provide sufficient and effective support to a patient. According to her, a certain amount of time is needed to create a therapeutic bond between a patient and the therapist, to which more time must be added to work on the causes of the symptoms expressed by the patient. She believes that for 'minor' mental health issues such as stress or anxiety, the minimum period of time for a patient to sense beneficial results is one year.

Access to support

This is not the only issue that needs to be addressed. In most if not all cases, if students decide to take time off their studies due to mental health reasons, they should be entitled to receive counselling to support their return to university. Instead, according to many university policies, if a student is not attending university at that particular moment, they cannot receive counselling until they return to university. This leaves them unsupported at vulnerable times and may delay or even stop students from going back to school.

Following from this matter, an aspect that must be considered is that there is a significant number of applications for student counselling each year. The University of Edinburgh registered more than 2,800 in 2016. The University of Manchester and King’s College London come in second and third position with around 2,500 students accessing student counselling. It is therefore, a complex matter to decide whether to give priority to fewer students with more urgent needs and allow them extended therapy periods or to let everyone access mental health services but with a limited number of sessions available.

My recommendations

An effective response would be to boost the number of staff together with the increasing marketisation of education, which has reached unprecedented costs. In fact, according to the National Union of Students, the rise of university tuition fees is the main stress factor among students. With more counsellors, universities could shorten the waiting lists and address the needs of all students who apply, even those who are taking time off their studies. This way, they could undergo long-term and more effective therapies.

In the worst cases, counsellors should also be able to point students in the direction of a more serious and long-lasting therapy. Alternatively, as a supplement to free counselling centres, universities across the country could set up private practices on campus to support students who are experiencing grave mental health issues. The prices could be reduced compared to standard private practices, to make them more accessible and affordable for students who do not have anyone else to turn to in such difficult periods of their lives.

Luca is a third year International Relations student. He is currently an intern at CMIR (Centre for Migration and International Relations) in Nepal where he researches issues concerning labour migration from Nepal to other countries, and writes case stories on migrant workers' experiences.

Note: 'Student Blog' pieces highlight the student perspective on issues relating to ProtectED. Consequently, this article reflects the views of the author and not ProtectED.

* If you are struggling with your mental health at university, there are a number of support options; see this guide from student mental health charity Student Minds.

** Indicator 3.4.1 of ProtectED's Student Wellbeing and Mental Health instrument suggests that universities part-fund an NHS mental health practitioner to work with counselling services.

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