Not all Snowflakes: Student Mental Health is a Real Issue for British and American Universities
A report issued today by The Higher Education Policy think-tank outlined that some universities need to treble how much they spend on mental health support, and that one in 10 students has a “diagnosable mental illness”.
The report calls for more support for students who have problems such as depression, anxiety and loneliness, warning that the number of student suicides has risen. Universities struggle to cope with the scale of the rising problem, while at the same time providing inadequate funding for counselling and mental health services.
There are a number of issues that contribute to the problem, especially for new students — they move to a new part of the country, lose established support networks, have to deal with higher academic standards, and take on large debt — all at the same time.
I outlined the difficulty in students getting support for mental health issues in the introduction of my book Overcoming Anxiety (excerpt below). Students find it difficult to access support as universities often underfund their counselling services and, in the U.K., the NHS does not recognise how vulnerable students are. Then there is the added problem of inconsistent care between term-time and holidays as students move between two different areas and different GPs and health authorities.
Figures from a leading US university published this month suggested that demand for counselling there was even higher. Among students starting university at Harvard this autumn, almost one in five had already received counselling. The US figures suggested the likelihood of counselling increased among students from wealthier families.
Much of the burden of responsibility for duty of care towards students often falls upon academic staff. These lecturers and researchers are, more often than not, not qualified to deal with mental health problems (and neither should they be), but find that support for the students is lacking elsewhere due to underfunded resources and a failure of universities to recognise the scale of the problem.
It’s not just universities that need to look at the funding and structures of their mental health support, the government also needs to look at how it has created a perfect storm of financial and academic pressure on our young people, while also underfunding and stripping away healthcare and mental health resources.
This is my excerpt outlines my experience as a Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader at a U.K university:
On a warm afternoon towards the end of Spring in 2014, I was sitting in my university office when there was a knock on my door. I looked through the glass to see a student I recognised from one of my health psychology classes. I smiled, gestured for her to come in and swivelled my chair around to meet her gaze, but I couldn’t, because her eyes were firmly fixed on the floor.
Without looking up, she reached out her hand and gave me an envelope that was addressed to me. I tore it open and pulled out a four page handwritten letter. It started, ‘Dear Matt, I feel unable to speak about how I feel at the moment, so I thought it would be best to put my words into writing and explain it that way…”
The letter went on to describe, in great detail, how anxiety had crippled her life and left her feeling unable to function. She had fallen behind in her academic work, withdrawn from all social activities, wasn’t able to sleep more than a few hours each night, and could see no way out. She cried as I read her words and I barely managed to hold back my own tears.
She wasn’t the first student to open up to me about her anxiety and she wouldn’t be the last. As my academic career developed, I found more and more of my time was being taken up by students seeking me out to talk about their personal anxiety and ask for advice and guidance. I always tried to be open and warm towards students, and I think they often found it easier to talk to someone in my position — someone accessible who taught them about mental health — rather than their parents, friends, university counsellors, or medical professionals. I occupied the middle ground between the ‘too personal’ and the ‘too official’.
Having suffered from severe anxiety, I was able to be empathetic and understood many of their fears and struggles. I could also provide them with the powerful hope that it’s possible to change your relationship with anxiety and manage it in a way that not just helps you get by in life, but enables you to thrive, while still living by your core values and being true to yourself. I was able to explain how someone like me, who was scared of speaking on the phone and terrified of social gatherings, was now able to regularly lecture in front of more than 200 students.
I would listen to them carefully, discuss strategies that could help them put their coursework back on track, and then suggest they seek help from the university support services or their General Practitioner. Like all people, students found it difficult to get help for their anxiety; often limited to ten minute appointments with their local GP and faced with waiting lists of six months or longer to see a psychologist or psychotherapist. University counsellors helped when they could, but often had to refer cases to the local health service. Over the years, as the trickle of students turned into a steady flow, I started working on a guide to help with everyday anxiety that students could take away with them after their appointments…