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.
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?