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Time to talk about student mental health

As universities grapple with student mental health there's lots of focus on talking. Phil Pilkington argues that we should think about who they're talking to and why they're listening.
This article is more than 5 years old

Phil Pilkington is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Coventry and Deputy Chair at Middlesex University SU

Many of the student mental health strategies being adopted by universities argue that it’s “time to talk”. But who are students talking to, and on what basis are people listening?

Students are in the age range of those most likely to develop mental health issues, or for the issues to emerge with demonstrative symptoms. However, students are more likely to have the (emerging) mental health issues than non-students in their peer group.

Some claim the burden of debt contributes to the higher rate of suicides. But the higher rate had been marginally higher, within the age range, before the introduction of full cost fees; the alleged independence from home and the life changing experience that means, the loss of support networks by ‘moving away’, the breakdown of powerful personal relationships and the changing perspectives on parents are all contributing conditions.

Psychological conditions that were controlled by the explicit or tacit control of family conditions are removed, and this release can bring about critical states of mind. The apparent increase in student suicides and the exponential increase in students’ mental health problems and subsequent demand on counselling services all require that “more should be done”. That “more” has often meant a focus on interactions with other students and academics..

Peer to peer approaches

Nightline has been a service available at a number of universities (and polytechnics as they were) for over 40 years. It is a national brand for a confidential listening service for students with psychological and emotional problems, and are distinct from the practical advice and advocacy of welfare casework services.

Is Nightline the answer to address the problem of mental health? No. They are staffed by student volunteers who will have mixed and unclear motives for volunteering, including the problems of evangelical student volunteers and those trying to ‘work out their own problems’ attracted to others with similar critical states. The training for volunteers is necessarily comparatively short and inadequate, or we have no independent quality audit of the service.

There is little or no connectivity with external agencies which can support students in referrals (alcohol advisory services, NHS services), the impact and distress for the student volunteers of the service (who may have considerable problems themselves which can be the motivation to help) is significant, and there is a lack of accountability or evidence of outcomes. And there is always the well-known alternative option of the Samaritans.

Tutor talk

Perhaps students should talk to their academics. The Office for Students is charged with ensuring that the “Prevent” duty is implemented by universities, and to soften and disguise the agenda it is framed as “safeguarding” when compulsory training is rolled out in pursuit of compliance. There are more cases of student suicides per year than student terrorists – a similar amount of focus, resource and training on mental health as there has been on the Prevent agenda might have produced some positive outcomes for students and their families.

In fact, the suggested methods in used to sanitise the Prevent obligations on universities may be more applicable to addressing students’ mental health in general. Part of the programme enables those interacting with students to ascertain or assess a student’s (changing) mental health. In the Prevent agenda, this is perceived as a precursor to the student embarking on a terrorism career, but here is a problem with the methodology in that the nascent terrorist will be more likely to have withdrawn from social contacts and the course (as evidence has shown) which would prevent making assessments of the student altogether.

However, the assessment of students with mental health problems by those who are currently required to carry out assessments under the Prevent agenda might be more helpfully directed to considering the mental welfare of all students. The training suggested under the Prevent agenda is extensive, often mandatory and externally regulated for teaching and non-teaching staff. How ironic that general mental health training is cursory, voluntary, and deliberately not regulated – because one size “does not fit all” – and even more ironic that OfS collects statstics on welfare casework not for monitoring mental health provision, but as a proxy for Prevent.

Is it any wonder that Muslim students feel more watched than cared for?

2 responses to “Time to talk about student mental health

  1. Hi Phil,
    I loved reading your blog. Thanks for sharing. Indeed an interesting perspective. And a much needed open criticism of Prevent, which is even required from primary schools – do we really expect 10 year-old terrorists)?
    I also worry about the focus on the individual. Talking can be great when we have mental health issues, and being able to talk can also be a source of social support that prevents ill mental health. But I think we need to go further and change our structures to pressure is reduced (the old demand-support stress model). I did not study first degree in the UK and have come to strongly believe student mental health could be improved by including more formative assessments and moving exams to the end of each term (before the holidays).

  2. Hi Phil
    Very interesting reading. In Swansea we are working towards a much more integrated approach to support where student support services complement one another and offer choices to students. The interfaith Chaplaincy is a really important part of this mix with full time Muslim and Christian Chaplains offering a confidential listening services to all students. There is the opportunity for students to be involved in support groups where peer to peer learning and support can flourish. This year we have focussed on Writing for Wellbeing workshops (Journal writing) and a bereavement support group. During exam time we put on de-stress events and work with the students union to promote these activities and support their
    activities. It is important that students have choices of where they access their support as one size does not fit all and that services talk to one another to ensure that the student experience and support can be the best it can be.
    Best wishes

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