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Guest blog: Degrees of Pressure — How universities can help students under strain

Freshers’ week has ended. Student bank accounts have been hit hard and deadlines for assignments are beginning to loom large on the horizon. Now the party is over, university counsellors up and down the country are primed to support an influx of students feeling the strain of a life away from home.

Without help, anxieties can escalate. Early and easy access to professional support is essential. I’ve seen how ignoring or bottling up problems causes untold suffering later in life. It’s one of the reasons our mental health crisis services in this country are struggling to cope. The ability to get help when it is needed can equip students with coping strategies that can last a lifetime. Of course, some things are never that easy or simple. But without timely access to help, we’re not giving people the best chance of helping themselves.

Accessible support

Instead of waiting until a student feels ready to ask for help and instead of that student being put on a waiting list, I believe help should be available when and where they need it. This is difficult when a lot of support is based around traditional opening hours and face-to-face therapy. It’s difficult when it’s 3am and you can’t sleep because you feel anxious and know the next therapist appointment is three days away. Or perhaps there is no appointment and you’re on a waiting list with no idea when you’ll get the support you need. Perhaps you’re nowhere near an official waiting list, you’re just waiting for the noise in your head to stop.

A case for digital

It’s here that I would argue the case for digital. Professional online services can be a lifeline for those too embarrassed to seek help in person. There is no stigma in having online counselling on your phone after a lecture or before an exam. At 3am it should still be possible to access self-help materials and read over forum threads to find out about peers going through the same issues.

We recently surveyed young people using online counselling service Kooth. Seven out of ten log-ins were outside the traditional working week, indicating that young people and young adults want to access mental health support outside clinic opening times, posing challenges for the way in which NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and adult services, is currently structured. Most preferred online counselling over face-to-face therapy, citing reasons of anonymity and control; a quarter wanted a mix of both.

And that’s where I see digital counselling: as a complement to in-person counselling. It can help those on waiting lists. It can help those who are working up to a face-to-face appointment. It can support people in between in-person therapy sessions when and where they need it, via their phone, their tablet or their laptop. If it’s free and anonymous, so much the better. It can also support existing student welfare services which are struggling to cope with increasing numbers of students needing mental health support. In some institutions, demand is outstripping supply on a worrying scale.

Recent developments

A recent IPPR study ‘Not by Degrees: Improving Student Mental Health in the UK’s Universities’ surveyed UK higher education providers. It found 94% had experienced a rise in demand for counselling services in the past five years; 61% reported a rise in demand of more than 25%. Just 29% had an explicit strategy on student mental health and wellbeing.

At one university, we assessed the demand from students, looking at the number of counsellors available and the time they had to dedicate to students. We found that if each student was to have a half hour session with a counsellor, the university would, after triage, be able to offer just 15% of those on the waiting list an appointment before the end of term.

It’s clear then that a review of welfare services is necessary. Universities should be aiming for a robust and transparent mental health strategy, which can scale quickly to meet the current need and provide accessible early support for students with emerging issues. So it’s pleasing to see Universities UK recently issuing a new framework to help improve the mental health and wellbeing of university students. The Step Change​ framework​ is aimed at helping university leaders integrate good mental health practices across their organisation.

Another sign that change is happening is in the work of the ProtectED, which is looking at the wider role universities have in supporting the safety and wellbeing of their students — not only while they are on campus, but throughout their student experience. This recognition that universities have a responsibility far beyond pure academic achievement is a positive sign that students’ all-round needs are being seriously considered.

Time to step up

Giving students choice and giving them control is an important step forward. Integrating digital with existing face-to-face services will help relieve pressure from face-to-face counsellors, providing immediate professional help to those who desperately need it. Online counsellors can refer students to face-to-face therapy or other specialist services where necessary; likewise, face-to-face therapists can refer out to Kooth.

Students at university today are contending with a host of stresses, from debts and deadlines, to living away from home and – after significant investment in their degree – the pressure to get a good grade at the end of it. Students are feeling the strain as never before – it’s time we stepped up and gave them the support they need.

Elaine Bousfield is the chair and founder of XenZone. XenZone recently launched Kooth Student – an online counselling service specifically for students. The University of West England now offer this service to their students, free of charge.

Indicator 4.1.1 of ProtectED's Student Wellbeing and Mental Health Instrument requires member universities to have provisions in place to allow students access to 24/7 mental health support.

Note: The views and opinions expressed by authors of Guest Blog posts and by those providing comments do not necessarily reflect those of ProtectED. Information on products or services is provided “as is” with no warranties, and confers no rights.

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