Mental health and the student experience

Anxiety affects 8.2 million people in Great Britain and one in four students are reported to suffer from mental health issues. I am personally affected by anxiety, I feel it in my studies, in my social life, and in my job. It took me a long time to even deal with the symptoms of anxiety, in fact, until about six months ago I assumed that frequent feelings of panic and fear were just a part of life.

I assumed that everyday at work had to feel like the first. I felt alone, I didn’t think I had anyone to turn to. It got so bad that I would retreat from normal life, I wouldn’t go to class or talk to friends. One day, I had a major issue with some coursework and I had a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe, my heart was beating out of my chest and I couldn’t stop shaking. I was terrified, it took some good friends and some pushing from my parents but I eventually sought help from the university counselling service.

I thought counselling was giving up, it seemed like you were telling the world that you couldn’t handle your own problems. I was even anxious about it. Can you believe that? I was getting anxiety about dealing with my anxiety. Everyday my appointment drew closer and everyday I thought about cancelling it. It just seemed like the easier thing to do, but despite my fears of counselling I decided to show up to the meeting.

I turned up to the first session with a lot of trepidation but after an hour of honest conversation my mind was changed. After attending more sessions I feel better, I can deal with the

symptoms in a sensible and healthy way and I can rationalise situations easier. I still have anxiety, six sessions with a counsellor is not going to fix that, but I don’t have that dagger over my head anymore.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy or BACP recently cited a survey from the Heads of University Counselling Services which stated that the number of higher education students seeking counselling rose by 16% from 2010 to 2013 and wait times for first appointments went up to between five days to three weeks. According to Therapy Today, a trade journal for therapists there are also higher incidents of complex mental health issues like self-harm.

So it seems like mental health is much more of an issue for the average student in 2018 than it was even ten years ago.  Considering the increased strain on counselling services and prevalence of mental health issues, I wanted to know how the student counselling service affects other students. I spoke to a current (anonymous) student who had availed of the counselling services,

It sounds like the services available from the student counselling service in Coleraine are above average and they gave him the tools and connections for him to seek further help outside of the student service. Student counsellors, like all counsellors cannot prescribe any medication but they can help you to think differently about things. In many cases, this may be the only thing that is needed. In my case I felt that I would not benefit from the use of anti-anxiety medication but I was aware that I could talk to my counsellor about that if I thought I needed it.

There is an enormous breadth of services available to university students in the UK but is it too much? Until recently I thought that there was a major preoccupation with what every other poster in the campus called ‘wellness’ or ‘mindfulness’. Little diagrams of breathing techniques and reminders to take time to decompress covered the poster boards. Vicki Pollock, academic and author of ‘Understanding Social Work Practice in Mental Health’, noted that,

‘A heightened sense of panic about mental health, and extremely slippery notions of what it means, have generated hasty, ill thought-through responses’.

Many even believe that therapeutic intervention in a school or university environment will create a generation that will equate psychological harm with physical harm and by trying to deal with student issues, they have merely made them more vulnerable.

It seems cynical to argue against an increase in mental health support but until I needed it, that’s what I felt. As I would be walking to class, I would pass the posters and think, who reads this? Who wants this? Who needs this? I was cynical, I believed that the world needed to deal with their own problems. Now, after accepting help, the posters give me a sense of comfort. It helps students realise that they are not going through this alone, they are not a unique case and I find that comforting.

I had interviewed a student about their experiences with and feelings about student counselling but I wanted to get another perspective, that of the student counsellor themselves. Understandably, they cannot be publicly named and be seen commenting on counselling in a online article. A student counsellor did agree to an email interview, provided that they would not be identified.

They have worked in the counselling world for ten years and previously had worked as an addiction counsellor, a relationship counsellor and in crisis support. When I asked them about what drew them to student counselling in particular, they had this to say,

‘I was impressed by the courage of the students I worked with and enjoyed working with the variety of presenting issues that students brought to the counselling room’.

I wanted to know what had changed on a day to day level relating to student counselling, considering the statistics quoted by the BACP,

‘There is a growing awareness of mental health issues and conversations about emotional wellbeing seem to be more public than when I started counselling. As a result, mental health services are better funded, service users appear to have a greater input into the commissioning of services and individuals are more willing to access supports which are generally more accessible. In addition, peer-led movements such as ‘Mind Your Mood’ are more prevalent.’

With the perceived increase in public conversation about ‘wellbeing’ and a more emotionally aware public, I asked what changes they would like to see because of it,

‘I think we can always be learning and improving the services we offer. A counselling service that is accessible is very important. Students often are reluctant to lift the phone and, as such, other messaging mediums could be used to compliment helpline support. Face-to-face counselling offers the best space for relational connection in a talking therapy, however, we could be doing more to develop counselling delivered over a secure video platform that might offer support to those who cannot access face-to-face counselling due to anxiety, time pressures, and so on.’

From my conversation with them I got the sense that it is very important to have easy, open, and free access to mental health services for students. Considering the stressful situations that can arise from studying in university mental health awareness is key. Due to changing deadlines and work responsibilities, it can be hard to predict your schedule from week to week so it is up to you and your counsellor to find a time that suits you both.

 

Could the flexibility and ease of access create dependency? Alan Percy, Head of Counselling at the University of Oxford, believes that speed of access is important to counselling but that students should not expect an immediate response nor should they come with expectations of its effectiveness. In other words, counselling is not just a quick fix, it’s something that takes work.

It seems that despite what many commenters believe to be a softening of the younger generations many students are still reluctant to reach out for help. Mental health issues are on the rise but the growing openness and acceptance of conversations about the topic gives a bright hope for the future. I always believed that when it comes to mental health, it was all up to yourself. I couldn’t face seeking help. It took a major issue and a lot of stress to understand that sometimes it doesn’t work if you’re alone, sometimes you need to reach out for help.

If you have felt personally affected by anything in this article or are interested in what you can do to in Ulster University to help promote mental health awareness, click on the links below.

https://www.inspirewellbeing.org/students/contact-us

https://www.ulster.ac.uk/mindyourmood

 

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