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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 transparen