Students and parents can tap into a counselling service via the web. Anne McHardy reports.
University counselling services are used directly by only a tiny minority of students, but they help to underpin all other support services by training and assisting other welfare and tutorial staff. This is one reason why the Heads of University Counselling Services last month launched a university-wide information website.
The website - which contains contact details for individual university counselling services, plus links to all the information leaflets that they have published on subjects ranging from anger and loneliness to exam stress, relationships, sexual health and eating disorders - is aimed not only at counsellors but also at students and parents.
It provides a point of reference to explain what counselling services are and to share best practice, as well as to reassure students and parents that many problems are normal and can be solved.
This year's Hucs chairperson, Eileen Smith, head of counselling at the University of Hertfordshire, says that most students approach either friends or academic tutors rather than the counselling services when they have a problem. One vital function of members of counselling services, who all have a counselling or a psychotherapy background, is to ensure that friends know where to find help and that academic staff recognise danger signs, how to handle approaches and where to turn for backup.
"We were aware that individual universities were producing excellent material and felt that it was wrong to duplicate unnecessarily," Smith says.
"The function of Hucs has always been to provide support for counsellors. I know that if I have a problem that I have not encountered before there will be someone at another university who is only a phone call or an email away who will have dealt with a similar problem. The website aims to make that sort of support much more widely available."
It was a deliberate decision to make information available to parents as well, she says, because, although undergraduates are by definition adults, their parents still need to understand these issues and to have reassurance.
Students arriving from school aged 18 or 19 have one range of difficulties, while mature students, many of whom have to balance family, emotional and financial needs with those of undergraduate life, have another. Widening access to university to people with no family tradition of university has added new problems, something newer universities are most likely to encounter. The parents of these students are less likely to understand and to be ready to cope with problems of transition, loneliness, worry about courses or exam fears.
Smith says that university counsellors have the advantage over community health services in that they recognise the particular stresses of their institutions and of the academic year. They are aware of the academic timetables and holiday periods, know which departments have exams at which points in the year, which have peak work loads at different times and also what the normal difficulties of student life are.