A record number of students with mental health problems has highlighted the need for universities to pool their expertise in pastoral care. Leicester University is leading the way.
When the University of Leicester set out to improve its facilities for students with mental health problems, it could not have predicted the response it would get from within its own walls and from other institutions.
After recently completing a three-year project funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England into how students with mental health difficulties can best be supported, Leicester produced a guide that has been requested by more than 100 universities. Helping Students in Difficulty gives staff practical advice on mental health issues, from when a tutor should deal with a problem personally to when the student should be referred to another department. It also contains flow charts outlining helpful courses of action.
It comes at a time when record numbers of students are entering higher education and experiencing some mental health problem. A study by the Mental Health Foundation, conducted by Pauline Fox, senior lecturer in psychology at Thames Valley University, shows that 46 per cent of male students and 64 per cent of female students have symptoms of depression.
What makes Leicester's response to dealing with the situation unique is that it wanted to involve the entire university community in tackling the issue. So a survey to collate information was sent to students and staff, including porters, cleaners, secretaries and security personnel.
Non-academic staff were sent copies of the guide and invited to training workshops. The importance of involving them was borne out by the fact that 20 per cent of students said they turned to departmental secretaries for advice and 3 per cent to porters and cleaners.
The decision to involve them has been widely appreciated. Annie Grant, director of the university's Educational Development and Support Centre and author of the guide, says: "A mental health problem is a human issue. If you see a student in distress, you want to know how to respond. You don't want to say: 'It's not my job.' " Helping Students in Difficulty deals with issues that are pertinent to the work of all university staff. Most staff have come across students with difficulties of one kind or another. Our ultimate aim is to help students make the most of their academic experience and learn to manage any mental health problems they have."
Other universities are also tackling the mental health problem among their students.
According to Universities UK's mental health guidelines, there is a growing awareness that university counsellors and medical centre staff are no longer able to deal with increasing levels of mental illness.
It says "a more coherent structural approach is required", together with the involvement of specialist professionals such as GPs and psychiatrists.
The University of Cambridge counselling service employs a National Health Service consultant psychiatrist/psychotherapist for half a day a week and offers psychiatric assessments to students.
Birmingham University has built mental health awareness into its overall staff development programme. Staff are given training to recognise and manage stress within themselves and students.
Its student support and counselling service provides a telephone consultation service for staff concerned about the academic progress or psychological health of students.
University College Northampton targeted the highest risk group, 18 to 25-year-olds, with postcards on depression, suicide, panic attacks, stress and eating disorders. Each card carries warning signs to look out for and useful contacts for help.
It also used its mental health development officer to coordinate support services outside the university and within UCN. The university found that using the mental health development officer in this way created better communication and improved liaison.
Leicester University's mental health programme includes the need to develop a student mentoring scheme after a questionnaire revealed that students relied heavily on friends and older student contacts for help with personal and study concerns.
It also decided to collaborate with Nottingham University, which was carrying out a similar project. Regular meetings were held to share ideas and findings.
Grant believes it is crucial that universities share information and good practice. It is an idea endorsed by Fox.
She believes universities are beginning to do this more, although there is still a problem within universities where information is not distributed between different departments.
Fox's survey of student mental health for the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) examined the views of students and university staff about student mental health.
Researchers also looked into mental health policy and initiatives. Student views were obtained from one new university and one old university.
Fox says the students questioned said their mental health was affected by a number of issues, including accommodation, fitting in and making friends, finances and university systems.
Some felt the university system did not offer practical advice on how to deal with their problems and they were reluctant to see a counsellor because this was seen as a sign of weakness.
There was also a reluctance from some staff outside health and counselling services to take responsibility for student mental health.
Fox believes universities should be campaigning to de-stigmatise mental illness and working with students and staff to promote a "positive sense of wellbeing".
The research also recommends that universities identify the needs of different groups to enable them to target initiatives. The needs of mature students differed from those entering university from school, for example, as did the needs of students with children.
As a result of the research and discussions with different organisations, the MHF says a "one-stop shop" approach could be beneficial to students.
The ideal would be an environment in which students can get help for all of their problems, such as poor housing, lack of money or relationship difficulties.
Lisa Bird, head of the MHF's research and support unit, says the one-stop shop would be similar to a Citizen's Advice Bureau and would mean that students are no longer pushed from pillar to post.
It is an idea welcomed by the National Union of Students, although Rachel Cashman, NUS vice-president, welfare, says some universities already have student villages, ensuring students are near counselling facilities.
"The trouble is that help varies from institution to institution. A one-stop shop is a good way of connecting people, but a student union acts like that at the moment," she says. What is needed is better coordination, she added.
"Student unions and universities should be working together to demystify the problem. Universities are reluctant to admit they have students with mental health problems, because they don't want to be associated with mental illness.
"Universities should realise that students are individuals, not just textbook readers. There should be a sharing of good practice. This isn't done in education because it's too competitive."
Ravi Rana, senior counsellor and deputy head of the student counselling service at University College London, says universities are beginning to wake up to their responsibilities to students who are experiencing mental health problems.
"The rapid increase in the numbers of students has overtaken universities' ability to deal with them. Mental health services have felt overwhelmed," she says.
UCL has responded by offering a well-funded counselling service and training sessions for staff.
But Rana says it should also be recognised that staff have less time to spend on their pastoral duties and are experiencing more stress themselves. UCL has recently appointed a counsellor for staff.
She says there needs to be greater awareness at government level of the pressures staff are under.
During a recent round-table forum on student psychological distress for UCL staff and students, Rana said all university staff should be aware of the behavioural traits that can indicate that a student is in distress. Poor exam results, skipping lectures and loss of motivation should be signs to be taken seriously.
If the government and universities fail to acknowledge that mental health problems need to be tackled, they will see higher dropout rates, she warns.
"There needs to be more recognition of the problem and awareness of the needs of students while they are going through university.
"There must also be more support for staff and more resources for staff training."
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