Debt leads to sharp rise in cries for help

July 4, 2003

The human cost of the government's higher education policies is manifesting itself through an increase in student depression rates, university counsellors have warned.

According to a survey carried out by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the number of students seeking help from therapists is rising faster than ever. But financially stretched counselling services are struggling to meet this demand.

Counsellors lay much of the blame for rising rates of depression among students at the door of the government and its policies, including the introduction of tuition fees and scrapping of grants, which have increased pressure on students by raising debt levels.

The study found that "vulnerable" students had to wait an average of three weeks to see a counsellor. Ten per cent or more of the students seeking help were either suicidal or had attempted suicide.

Mark Phippen, head of Cambridge University's counselling services, told a symposium on depression at Jesus College: "If students have to wait too long, or if the services on offer are mediocre, they will drop out. This has a personal impact, but it is also a great financial drain on universities."

Mr Phippen said that in general the counselling services in universities were seriously under-funded. Cambridge's service is under considerable pressure - last year it saw more than 1,000 students and 130 staff.

While many services are facing cutbacks, South Bank University in London has closed its counselling service completely. Students are now obliged to turn to community mental health resources.

According to THES sources, some students have approached neighbouring university counselling services for help but have been turned away because they are already overstretched.

Elsa Bell, head of the counselling service at the University of Oxford, said: "Universities that think there is a range of community services students can access are deluding themselves. They are sending their students out to nothing."

The Royal College of Psychiatrists shares concerns about the state of student healthcare and has established a working party to assess the extent of the problems. Charlotte Feinmann, a working party member, said:

"Pastoral care is just as important as the academic mission. We should be working as professionals to try to identify sooner those who are vulnerable."

University counsellors generally agreed that depression was on the increase in the student population as the pressures on students became greater.

Nigel Humphrys, head of Leeds University counselling service, said: "Being a student is quite different now compared with 20 years ago. Today we have a mass higher education system, so universities tend to be much larger and less personal."

Counsellors agreed that large loan debts were contributing greatly to rising student depression. Many students take on one or more jobs to stay afloat financially, which may strain their academic abilities.

Ms Bell said students were leaving Oxford because of financial pressures.

"Large debts are a major issue. You've put this money in and you don't know what you will get out of it," she said.

In addition, counsellors said that the government's widening participation agenda, while laudable, produced vulnerable clusters of students more likely to feel emotionally isolated.

Dave Berger, senior counsellor at Hull University, said: "Traditionally, universities were places where people who already had independent learning skills went. Now universities are opening their doors to people without that background whose families may not have experience of universities."

But not all depressed students will seek help. The BACP survey found that less than one-third of all students who sought counselling were male. As young men are the highest risk group for suicide, this is particularly worrying.

Mr Berger said: "There is a lingering macho idea that you shouldn't ask for help."

Counsellors agreed that they needed to make their services more attractive to students. But they argued that universities also needed to play a role in identifying students with emotional problems and place more emphasis on personal tutoring.

Paul Walters, a fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry, said: "I don't think universities do enough. There should be specific teaching about depression as part of students' induction. It is only by raising awareness that people will be able to stand up and say they have a problem."

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