Why I... think counselling does not make students into victims

October 31, 2003

Head of student counselling service, Royal Holloway, University of London

Student counselling has been under attack recently with counsellors accused of perpetuating a "victim culture", but the students we see in counselling at Royal Holloway are not "essentially vulnerable" and given to suggestion, as has been suggested. Nor would we dream of implying they were the victims of any unreasonably intense or damaging demands our college has put on them.

Most academics seem appreciative of the help we offer as they don't wish to see their students underperform or drop out but are too busy or feel too underqualified to offer support themselves. Follow-up research suggests our service users generally score slightly higher than average in their final degrees.

The majority of student clients are disoriented by the specific difficulties facing them; after time to reflect in counselling - say, four to five sessions - they get these sorted out. Ninety-five per cent of students who use us say they found counselling helpful in resolving their problems and would come back if they needed help again. Most do not return, which suggests we are not making them "dependent upon professionals", as has been claimed, but helping them to become independent problem-solvers.

My sense is that the present comparatively high demand for counselling in universities is caused not by an "epidemic of mental illness" but by significant societal changes. First, I would like to think that we are more compassionate and so keener to help students avoid the waste of time and money that is inherent in dropping out of or under-performing in a degree course. Second, we are less tolerant of the wastage of resources involved in failure, and now that we have an effective response to offer, we are keen that it be used. Third, recent changes in our society have disrupted the support patterns of old. Finally, students are exposed to a greater range of academic choices -one could say more freedom - than in the past.

None of this is to say life in 2003 is "more difficult" than it was for previous generations. It is self-evidently not, in terms of hardship. But life is possibly more complex and isolating, and dealing with that can be emotionally testing and can cause anxiety or depression along the way.

Therefore, the provision of counselling is not a prediction of students' inability to cope with routine changes, but a compassionate intervention offered to help students cope with non-routine, unforeseen changes and complexity.

Personally, I am always impressed by the emotional savvy and resilience of the students we see. Most adapt well to the demands placed upon them. A significant small number (but a tiny minority of students as a whole) have suicidal intent and we make no apology for supporting these proactively and expertly. A larger number suffer from chronic mental-health illnesses and are given longer-term counselling or are referred on to the National Health Service, but they, too, are a minority of those we see. The majority bring an acute life-stage difficulty, not an "illness", and a valuable feature of counselling is that we do not treat acute distress as an illness, but rather the opposite, and so avoid unnecessary pathologising.

For those wanting a true picture of student counselling, recent UK Universities, Heads of Student Counselling Services and Royal College of Psychiatrists reports on student mental health give an accurate idea of the value of what student counsellors do and show that, far from panicking, we are dealing well with an important job.

Books such as Frank Furedi's Therapy Culture seem to attack a caricature of counselling rather than the real thing. However, any debate about how we all may combine to support students best at this time (including how to avoid raising unnecessary anxieties) is extremely worthwhile.

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