By Emily Hawkins
Exam stress afflicts almost everyone during these spring months, and for some it can be too much to bear. It is no secret that national government-funded provisions for young people’s mental health are in a state of crisis, but what about services provided by our schools and universities?
More students have been using university mental health services, whilst the services themselves face more financial pressure and cuts. Lucy Sheriff, writing for the Huffington Post in 2013, wrote of the site’s findings from Freedom of Information Requests on universities and mental health support: “One university has seen a 107% increase in students seeking help in the last five years, but in just one year the amount of money spent on services was cut by more than £290,000.” They reported that 14 British universities between 2006/7 and 2011/12, “show a trend towards less funding, coupled with an increase in demand from students for counselling.”
When I contacted Student Minds, a mental health charity focused on the wellbeing of UK students, about the disparity of counselling resources, their spokesperson said, “There is a balancing act that is happening at the moment of the cuts that are being made and the increase of students accessing counselling. Student mental health needs to be a joint responsibility between the NHS and universities, and collaborative working between Higher Education institutions, statutory and voluntary services is key. Our vision is for all universities and health services to work together to recognise positive mental health as a priority for student success. The cuts to the NHS and universities inevitably have an effect on this balance.”
Student Minds also said, “We do hear students speaking about the difficulties in accessing support at their universities, but also wish to emphasise that all universities are different. We would recommend to anyone who has experienced a mental health difficulty, when applying to university, to take a look at what provisions that are available and whether that is the type of support you would want to access.”
When it comes to schools, the majority of head teachers recently expressed dissatisfaction with local services. In a survey conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders of 338 school leaders, 64% said they found it difficult to get adequate mental health services for pupils. That CAMHS is under-funded and inadequate is something all too well-known, but when it comes to on-school support the picture seems a little more blurry. Anna Feuchtwang, the chief executive for the National Children’s Bureau, said in response to the ASCL’s survey, that the research “confirms that better provision of child mental health services, both in and outside school, is still sorely needed.”
Even in schools that provide some support, there is a lack of knowledge. One student, who decided to leave their university owing to such a lack of specific help said, “Unis aren’t even that great at dealing with anxiety and depression and beyond that, they really don’t understand anything at all.” They explained how they felt their university services didn’t have enough funding after having to wait months for help, which then ultimately was ineffective and “very basic.” They also told me how seminar tutors showed a clear lack of understand and sensitivity, saying that “there was a lot of ‘you’ll feel better if you make yourself come / do your assignments’ and I just think…I literally couldn’t though.”
The problem is complex, as whilst NHS mental health services for young people have endured vicious cuts, so too have services at universities and secondary schools. As Ruth Caleb articulated in The Guardian, “It is not the role of university well-being services, however excellent, to replace the specialised care that the NHS should provide to students with mental illnesses.” But it isn’t just a funding issue, from the views of students it’s also clear that this is an empathy issue – or rather that there’s an endemic problem with teachers and academics not being trained properly in advising and supporting young people with mental health issues. It’s important that universities recognise that many students will come to university needing support for a whole array of mental health disorders and issues, as well as many who will experience poor mental health in during their time at university, and that this demand should be met by adequate support.
Check out more on our series on young people’s mental health provision in the UK.