Ivory Magazine: How Can We Improve Mental Health In Universities?

(Originally published on Ivory Magazine)

Over 80% of students have had a mental health problem over the last year. Whether that’s due to exam stress, previous conditions, or other, new factors, the number is far too big to ignore. But what’s the reason behind this, and what are universities doing to challenge it?

London School of Economics (LSE) has recently come under fire for their approach to a student suffering from severe mental health issues: kicking them out. The student in question, who has wished to remain anonymous, was evicted from their accommodation despite strong warnings from two medical staff involved who advised the student to stay in place.

In response to a petition directed towards LSE which went viral, student union Community and Welfare Officer Aysha Fekaiki said: “The school’s welfare system is atrocious and the rigorous and logical process by which students can access urgent help is actually non-existent.”

An LSE representative added: “We are not able to comment on the details of individual situations, but we can advise that the school strived to provide the student, in this case, with high level support during their time, and to  help with their difficult circumstances as much as possible.”

Does this suggest that universities don’t care about the wellbeing of their students, or is this an individual problem? Research would suggest the latter. The National Union of Students (NUS) has an entire section of their website dedicated to fighting mental health issues, and many universities follow the same steps. A quick look on the NUS website and you’ll find everything from a ‘what to look for’ page for potential mental illnesses, to links, support, and a toolkit for managing symptoms already present.

Other universities, such as The Universities of Aberdeen, Hertfordshire and Newcastle, have created unique ways to draw in suffering students – like their guide dog sponsored sessions where students can play with puppies as a stress reliever. But is this enough?

Research conducted by Universities UK in their ‘Mental Well-Being Working Group’ found that between five and 10% of students on average use university counselling services, which equates to around 115,000 students. The University of Reading found a consistent, 20% year-on-year increase in the need for counseling services, and another, anonymous institution found a raise of almost 50%.

A report published by HEFCE suggested that there has been a rise of students arriving at university with mental illnesses, rather than a pure increase during their time studying. This would suggest that the rise of mental illness at university is not being targeted adequately. Or is it just that going to university does not help a pre existing problem?

A brief chat with university students around the UK revealed that although institutions are doing a lot to target mental illnesses, the bigger problem might lay with NHS resources available. Students who are referred externally for counseling may have to wait weeks between appointments, and often sessions are fairly brief, meaning that it may be difficult to reach a point where the student feels comfortable enough to elaborate. Drug therapy is another quick reach for stressed teens, but without a proper team to support this, students can easily feel disregarded and can struggle to manage new symptoms or side effects alone.

Various students between the ages of 18 – 21 described their university mental illness provisions as: ‘okay’ ‘could be better’ and ‘it feels like they’re trying to put everyone into boxes’. When it came to the final comment, the student suggested that many sufferers have their own unique set of symptoms and problems, and university health services do not cater towards this.

With an average student population of 14,105 in the UK, it is not surprising that many institutions struggle to individually diagnose patients. Another student found that, before repeatedly asking for help, she was simply given leaflets about ‘how to cope’ with anxiety, and no concrete advice or support. Eventually she was referred to the NHS, but only after a lot of pressure on existing university services.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: “The challenge for universities is to build on the support services and external links that exist already, enabling referral to the NHS where necessary. It is important to remember that university wellbeing services, however excellent, cannot replace the specialised care that the NHS provides for students with mental illnesses.”

So what is the solution? It’s impossible for universities to rely entirely on the NHS to deal with increasing numbers of mentally ill students, but without the right provisions in-house there is a lack of alternative options. Universities need to increase their understanding and facilities for students suffering in this way. There should be more accessibility and support for people at university who feel they are struggling, and more training for lecturers about what to look for in their students.

A problem shared is a problem halved, and the rise of mental illness at university could definitely be reduced if institutions took it upon themselves to learn more about the warning signs, and the best ways to manage these problems.

Published by Georgie

I’m a branded content editor, freelance writer (NCTJ, BJTC, PPA) and digital marketing manager currently based in Bali, Indonesia.

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