Harry Bishop addresses the growing issue with how mental health is treated at university.
The number of students suffering with mental health difficulties at university in the UK is growing to epidemic levels. A recent Guardian article written by Professor Jo Smith finds that almost 80% of students have had mental health problems in the last year, and that 33% have had suicidal thoughts. Simply put, that’s a lot. But what are we offering students? Counselling? CBT? Mindfulness? No, a prescription, that’s what.
In my first year at university I asked my GP if I could see a counsellor and he prescribed me 10mg of citalopram. My friend, who was struggling with his sexual identity, asked for somebody to talk to and he was given 10mg of citalopram. Another close friend, who desperately needed counselling, was served a bawdy cocktail of drugs: citalopram, trazodone, diazepam (valium), and fluoxetine (prozac). All of us were entitled to some kind of counselling, yet none of us were forwarded by our GPs.
Our own Student Services are good, but they’re not faultless. They’ll offer you six sessions – whether you’re home-sick, or suffering with depression – though if you still want support after this, you can have a session a month. A friend at Nottingham University was allowed seven, another friend at Birmingham City University had five, and Staffordshire University offers four. The phrase ‘mental health is not taken as seriously as physical health’ is tossed around by many as a slam against stigmatisation. But so little is done about it… nothing ever seems to change. Between four and seven sessions to learn how to deal with your mental health issues? Yeah, right.
‘Looking After Your Mate’, a report released in February last year by Anna-Sophia Warren and Dr. Nicola Byrom, recognises that this lack of support from university services has led to a seriously upsetting new model of counselling. Fellow students are becoming the primary ‘supporters’ for these struggling friends who deserve so much better. 44% of supporters felt that they were the primary source of social support for the ‘supportee’ and only half of all supporters felt able to make the most of their university experience and, as a result of having such social support responsibility on them, half of supporters reported going on to have their own mental health difficulties. By not supporting the initial core of students who have mental health problems, we are producing more and more supporters who go on to suffer themselves. The lack of solid support services at UK universities is actively creating more sufferers of mental health problems. They are fuelling this solemn fire.
In this study, student supporters asked for ‘information about where to get advice, support groups, treatment plans and coping strategies’. An increase in funding for mental health will not happen overnight, or even necessarily any time soon. Though I dislike the pressure placed on students to be supporters, I have to say that this accidental and unfortunate model can, if nurtured properly, become a healthy and functional one. But only universities can make that happen.
There is a considerable amount more they can do to help these student supporters. For example, strengthening their personal capacity to live healthy lives at university whilst also showing them how they can correctly support their friends, offering quality empathy training, setting up support groups for them to meet with fellow student supporters and share their stories and ideas, and having a representative from the university’s student union keep in touch with them throughout the term to see how they’re doing. These aren’t hugely radical ideas. They’re basically common sense. We all know somebody who is suffering from mental health issues and we all want to help them. But it can be tough and our universities can, and should, be doing a lot more to build mental health support models that work more effectively, because pumping students full of anti-depressants hasn’t seemed to work so far.
I’m angry. Not at students, most definitely not, but at the failing institutions that seem to keep letting us all down, time and time again.