Higher degrees of disturbance

March 3, 2000

Students' mental health is suffering under the stresses of mass education. Colin Lago looks at how sympathetic staff can ease the burdens.

The notion that "student days are the best ones of your life" seems at best hackneyed and at worst to ring hollow. As the newspapers inform us, today's "average" student is constantly worrying about money, skipping meals, fitting in part-time work, making course-choice decisions and fitting in a social life.

While many students survive university life with panache, university counselling services have reported a growing incidence of disturbed and disturbing behaviour.

The background to this is the mass expansion of higher education. In the 1960s, one student in 18 entered higher education, today it is one in three. Many students find large lectures are commonplace, tutorial groups are ten or 20 rather than three or four, and knowing their personal tutor is increasingly rare.

For some students, the sheer size of study groups can lead to a greater sense of anonymity and disconnectedness. Given the expanse of most campuses, there is a need to create a sufficiently human networked environment so that individuals do not feel isolated and lonely.

The transition period to university life can also prove very difficult for some, as Shirley Fisher's research on homesickness revealed in the 1980s. In Homesickness, Cognition and Health, she wrote that students suffered loss of efficiency, absentmindedness, mood swings and an increase in psychosomatic symptoms, which could last for several months, during the transition to university.

"Students require a certain psychological robustness to manage their university experience these days," according to Julie Walking, Ravi Rani and Eileen Smith, who last March compiled a paper, Degrees of Disturbance: the New Agenda on Student Mental Health, on behalf of the Heads of University Counselling Services and the Association of University and College Counsellors.

The way courses are organised can heighten the strain. Many universities and colleges have adopted modules, unit and semester courses. While this offers students a wider choice of subjects, the downside is they are being assessed and having exams earlier. This is particularly onerous in the first and second semesters, when some are still reeling from the effects of leaving home and school.

These reforms have taken place against a national background of rapidly changing employment patterns, chronic unemployment in many areas, and breakdowns in community and family life. Funding changes mean students emerge with an average debt of Pounds 5,000. According to the National Union of Students, last year 21 per cent of students missed two meals a day to make ends meet.

Indicating its concern, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has funded five research projects on student mental health in the past two years.

Student counsellors report psychiatric referrals of new students as a continuing trend. Unfortunately, if such students are not fully recovered or given the appropriate help, breakdowns and withdrawals will occur. Lynne Eaker wrote in Sheffield University's counselling service guide, Personal Tutoring in Action (1999), that change is one of the great stress factors of our time. Inevitably, with so much societal and institutional change, stress, in a multitude of forms, has had a negative impact on students and staff.

The relation between student poverty, part-time work, health and mental health was made clear in a report, Student Finance and Mental Health, by Jon Roberts and researchers at the University of Westminster. They found that "poorer mental health was significantly related to difficulty in paying bills as well as to longer working hours outside university".

They also found that "people who had considered abandoning their course of study for financial reasons had significantly poorer mental health, poorer perceived general health, lower vitality and poorer social functioning".

Some decades ago, Abraham Maslow, an American humanist psychologist, drew up a hierarchy of human needs that had at its base food, drink, warmth and shelter, and built upwards to the need for acceptance and love in social relationships, the need to learn and develop, and eventually to aesthetic/spiritual elements.

Maslow argued that basic needs have to be met in order for the higher levels to be pursued. In short, if you are hungry, it is difficult to learn and study. If you are in large lecture groups, dashing between different subject disciplines, feeling lonely and trying to find friends, your studying will be impaired.

Barbara Rickinson, director of the University Counselling Service at Birmingham, conducted research with first, second and third-year drop-outs. The results, published in The British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, highlighted the critical importance of creating university environments that are "humanly networked", that is, with a variety of systems and opportunities that help students feel connected to the system that is their home for some years.

The unsung heroes and heroines of student life are often those staff members who are employed in posts carrying little status, yet who provide a significant contact and relational point for students, particularly those in distress. Yet harsh economics have led in many cases to staff cutbacks (of secretaries, administrators, technicians, porters, cleaners and resident tutors, for example) or have at least lessened their availability.

By extending a helping hand, listening, being there, and responding supportively to a student in difficulty, many concerns and worries may be lessened. Indeed, a US research programme found that "benign professors" were highly effective in supporting students with problems, particularly in the short term, though compared with counsellors the efficacy decreased if the problems' severity continued.

Personal tutoring has traditionally been the cornerstone on which student welfare has rested. The teaching quality assessments being carried out in universities have to take into account student support and guidance. Many universities, like Sheffield, have adopted a policy of each student having a named personal tutor. Despite these good intentions, the pressures on academic staff make it hard to fulfil their tutoring role they already have too little time in which to maintain research activity, writing, teaching significantly larger classes and marking. The grim scenario depicted is one of students unable to access tutorial time when they need it.

In cases of psychological distress and disturbance, the availability of counselling, health and advice centres on campus is increasingly important. Analyses of the psychological profiles of clients of counselling services in universities have revealed high incidences of anxiety, depression and other conditions comparable to psychiatric out-patient clinics.

Sad to say, these services are critically under-resourced, and students may have to wait some considerable time to be seen and receive the help they need to continue their studies. Certainly, it is the experience of many students that when troubled, studying is the last thing they can manage.

In the past decade, enormous changes have occurred in universities. These changes affect lives and it is vital that universities create systems and structures to ensure supportive human relations, thus fostering the human potential for learning, development, research and enterprise.

Colin Lago is director of the counselling service at the University of Sheffield. Copies of Personal Tutoring in Action, a handbook fo staff involved in working with and supporting students is available from: Counselling Service, University of Sheffield, Mushroom Lane, Sheffield S10 2TS. Tel 0114 222 4134; Fax: 0114 5 4199

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