Get rid of those professional stabilisers

October 17, 2003

The ubiquitous university counselling services cast students as fragile creatures unable to cope with the normal pressures of life, and in doing so undermine the mental health of the people they aim to help, argues Frank Furedi.

Therapy culture caught me completely unaware. In the winter of 1999, I was meeting a friend in the lobby of the University of London Union. While killing time, my attention was drawn to a large poster displayed prominently on the wall. The poster was advertising one of the innumerable helplines that cater for university students. In bold black letters it proclaimed: "The stiff upper lip went out in the 40s." Almost immediately, I understood that this in-your-face celebration of counselling contained an important statement about our times. The stiff upper lip was out and a new culture of helplines, support groups, counselling services, mentors, facilitators and emotional conformism was in.

Therapy culture exercises a powerful influence on higher education. It is probably more influential in campus life than in any other institutional setting. Working and studying in higher education has never been easy. A university education by definition has to be a challenging experience that continually stretches everyone concerned. It is a form of mental work that confronts each individual with the prospect of disappointment and failure.

Indeed, it is the creative dialectic between success and failure that often inspires the all-important leap in the intellectual imagination. Needless to say, working and studying in a university involves pressure and stress.

Sometimes the challenge of being questioned and tested leads to intellectual development, and sometimes it can disorient an individual.

What has changed in recent decades is not the demands of university life itself, but the cultural script through which we make sense of university life and the experience of students. Therapy culture transmits signals that define university students as vulnerable and likely to need professional support. At the same time, the demands of higher education are presented as excessively intense and potentially damaging to students' emotions. These signals are communicated to students from the first day they arrive on campus.

Students confronted with the ordinary troubles of life are now routinely advised to seek professional advice and counselling. A change in individual circumstance is often elevated into a problem that requires professional support. Transition counsellors specialise in offering support to individuals embarking on a new phase in their lives. "The counselling team are fully aware of the importance of managing transition and are here to help you find the way ahead," claims the University of Bath Counselling Service on its website. As illustrations of the kind of transitions that might require professional support, it mentions entry into university as a first-year undergraduate, the move by second-years from campus-based residence to living in town, the return of final-year students from placement and the arrival of postgraduate students. "It could be that feelings of self-confidence are quite threatened by the unfamiliarity of new surroundings and new people," the service warns.

Virtually every campus experience has been recast as a risk to students'

emotional health. Mental-health professionals insist that the reason why students are so vulnerable is because the world they face is far more difficult than that experienced by previous generations. According to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), students face unprecedented problems of financial hardship and debt. Nigel Humphrys, head of Leeds University Counselling Service, argues that students today "feel more isolated and adrift than those from their parents' generation" because universities tend to be "larger and less personal". For good measure, Humphrys also cites constant examining as another factor causing mental illness on campus. Ruth Caleb, head of counselling at Brunel University, argues that growing mental-health problems are due to the fact that increasing participation in higher education has produced "vulnerable clusters of students who need greater emotional support".

It is worth pointing out that the picture of campus life painted by the counselling industry looks more like cultural affectation than a sober assessment of empirical reality. What has been said about campus life is repeated by the therapeutic industry with monotonous regularity in relation to every institution in our society. We are warned that stress is reaching unacceptable levels in our schools and that primary schoolchildren may benefit more from counselling than older age groups. We are told that unprecedented levels of pressure at work are leading to an epidemic of mental illness in the workplace. Every institution, from the family, to the police and army to those in the world of sports, is plagued by pressures that were unheard of in previous generations. You don't need student debt or widening participation to make the very same claims about the desperate state of mental health in other institutional settings.

In any case, claims that promote the idea that university life is more difficult than in previous times are founded on prejudice rather than on a real assessment based on experience. Throughout the world since the 1930s, millions of students have faced financial problems. European students have always had to live with class sizes that make ours seem relatively cosy.

With the passing of the GI Bill in the US, millions of "non-traditional" students entered higher education without turning into a vulnerable group needing special support. Students faced more work and more pressure in the 1970s than today. So it is not the reality of campus life that has deteriorated but our ability to cope with routine challenges and pressure.

Whatever the reasons for this change, there is little doubt that studying in a university is increasingly experienced as a traumatic experience.

Anyone working in a university knows that a growing number of students feel unable to cope with deadlines and pressure. Deadlines and examinations usually unleash an avalanche of letters demanding extensions for this and that reason. Increasingly, GPs and counsellors provide covering notes outlining why a particular student suffering from emotional upheaval needs special consideration and support.

And, of course, throughout the Anglo-American world universities report a massive rise in the number of students seeking counselling. For example, in 2002 Columbia University and the State University of New York reported a 40 per cent increase in the numbers of students seeking on-campus help for depression and anxiety, as well as schizophrenia, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive and panic disorders. In the US, 92 per cent of students say they occasionally feel overwhelmed by the tasks they have to perform. The BACP reports that the number of UKstudents attending counselling is also rising.

This growing sense of vulnerability on campuses - which is shared by students and staff alike - is underwritten by a distinct, culturally based account of how we see ourselves as people and how we view our potential.

Such accounts provide guidelines about how much adversity people can be expected to face, how they should deal with disappointment, how they ought to cope with pressure and crisis, when they should seek help and when they should sort out problems on their own.

Students, like other people, have no inner desire to perceive themselves as unable to cope with their experience. But powerful cultural signals provide them with a ready-made therapeutic explanation for their troubles. And once the diagnosis of illness is systematically offered as an interpretative guide for making sense of distress, people are far more likely to perceive themselves as ill.

On campuses, advocacy groups and therapeutic professionals have been at the forefront of medicalising students' problems and sense of distress.

Probably the most striking illustration of the imperative to disease in the university has been the recent construction of the problem of student suicide.

In June, the BACP published the claim that 10 per cent or more of students seeking counselling were either suicidal or had made an attempt at suicide.

From the standpoint of the contemporary therapeutic imagination, it indeed appears as if campuses are inhabited by legions of suicidal students. But the figures published ought to be understood as an attempt to recycle prejudice into the language of hard data and research.

Terms such as "suicidal" and claims that students have attempted to commit suicide are not only imprecise - they say more about the worldview of the therapist claim-maker than that of the student. One university website asks: what is "feeling suicidal?" and answers: "this usually means thoughts, feelings or actions that involve a wish to die". It is difficult to encounter anyone in the real world who has not at some time or other had feelings that involved the "wish to die". The problem is not that most of us sometimes wish to die - the problem is that we treat this normal response to embarrassment and disappointment as one that requires professional intervention. It is symptomatic of our times that the attempt to inflate the problem of student suicide has not been questioned by the many university social scientists who have read their Durkheim and can usually recognise a moral panic when they bump into one.

Paradoxically the construction of the new problem of suicide serves to normalise what is fortunately a rare and exceptional event. By turning our reactions to disappointment into a problem, students are encouraged to internalise the idea that they are far too vulnerable to deal with the pressures of life. Such ideas promote the belief that we are always at risk of emotional damage.

As a result, it fosters a climate where students really do feel ill, insecure and emotionally damaged. The more students are lectured that stress makes them ill and suicidal, the more likely they are to feel sick.

Therapy culture is a threat to public health in British universities.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His book Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Anxious Age is published this week by Routledge, £14.99.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments