Stigma around mental health issues is lowering, and with the NHS being underresourced, the Falmouth and Exeter support services are experiencing challenges in meeting the demands of the students. Christer Davanger speaks with head of student support David Dickinson on how they are coping with the challenges of a growing student body.  

University can be a tough experience. Trying to juggle your deadlines, coursework, potential part-time jobs, a social life and still finding time for yourself can prove detrimental to one’s mental health even for the strongest of people. In fact, the Adult Psychiatric Mobility survey from 2014 showed that people of the student age had a large increase in reported mental health problems, particularly in women.

As it is hard to find help with the NHS, most students take their problems to the support services on campus. This and an increase in students reporting issues have proven a challenge for head of student support, David Dickinson.

“We have seen that there have been pressures in some service areas. The increase in the student numbers is an issue that we’ve had to respond to, but we haven’t seen a direct correlation. It’s not like we have 10 per cent more students and suddenly we have 10 per cent less availability,” Dickinson said.

An increase in the gap of students at the university, which according to Dickinson is about ten per cent year on year, has been the source of many complaints amongst both fellow students and Falmouth locals. But, Dickinson says that they have found different ways of working around the issue.

”We’ve tried to be very clever in how we respond to the changes in the student population.”

Head of student support David Dickinson finds the limitations of the NHS have put pressures on student support services. (Photo: Christer Davanger)



Dickinson explains that in addition to the increase of students, a decrease in the stigma surrounding mental health problems has also caused a lot more students to come forward about issues they are facing. He points to recent statistics showing that eight in ten students are now reporting what he refers to as ”low-level mental health distress”, such as experiencing anxiousness, stress or feeling depressed without necessarily having a diagnosed mental illness.

”But that sort of support that they require is not the same support as is required for people with confirmed mental illness. So, we’ve had to broaden the range of what we offer. We’re trying to be very clever in how we help people to help themselves, because we couldn’t help 80 per cent of the student population with one-to-one counselling. Everyone who comes to us will get something, but we’re assessing, and we’re prioritising,” Dickinson said.

While Dickinson does see a problem with the current state of things, he thinks it has more to do with the fact that they as student support are not fit to deal with severe mental health issues, which are more suited for the NHS.

”I don’t think we’re underresourced. But I do think we face a problem because the NHS in Cornwall is really quite hard pressed,” he told Truthfal.

”We’re not here to replace what the NHS does for people who have got mental illnesses or severe mental health problems. The problem is that it’s not really what we’re set up to do. It’s not safe for us to do it. But, neither are the NHS able to pick it up right now, and that’s where some of the tensions can come.”

Across the country, the suicide rates for students are historically high with the latest statistics from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showing that student suicides had almost doubled from 2007 to 2014.

Because of this, UK universities have increased the budgets for their mental health services. Falmouth and Exeter have upped their budget by six per cent and are planning to increase it further next year, according to Dickinson.

Despite this, some students at the Woodlane and Penryn campuses have complained of long waiting periods and lacklustre support.

Truthfal was approached by several students who wanted to come forward about issues they had faced with the support services. These students have all requested that they remain anonymous.

One of the people Truthfal spoke with was “Sarah”, a 22-year-old student at Exeter who contacted Student Support in January because she learned that her partner had attempted suicide several times over Christmas.

“The situation had gotten worse for both of us, and it was starting to take a toll on me. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle the situation on his behalf anymore and keep him safe,” Sarah told Truthfal.

 

“Sarah” first contacted student support after learning her partner had attempted suicide over Christmas break. This photo is purely illustrative and features a model. (Photo: Shutterstock)

 

After contacting the student support team, Sarah ended up having to wait over a month for a phone appointment, without being signposted elsewhere or given any information about other services she could seek out or numbers she could call.

“Considering I had mentioned suicide, I felt that it probably wasn’t handled the best. A lot can happen in a month. It’s a long time to wait, and it was a situation that I was really struggling to handle,” Sarah said.

After initially seeing Student Support about her suicidal partner on January 30th, she was told that the team would assess the situation and get back to her within a few days. A week passed without her hearing from them, so Sarah tried to get in contact with the team again. She didn’t get any response about her case until February 14th, when she received an e-mail that she had been allocated a phone appointment on March 3rd, more than a month after she first went there for help.  

“You kind of didn’t feel like you mattered,” Sarah said.

Besides the wait, one of the main issues Truthfal’s sources had with the Student Support services was the session limit they operate with. A student who comes to Student Support will be allocated six therapy sessions, after which they will have to wait for three months before applying for more therapy.

“You kind of didn’t feel like you mattered.”

A person who found that struggling was ”Laura”, a 21-year-old student at Falmouth who approached Student Support after she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression last year.

While Laura’s initial experience with the support services were good and helpful, when she found out that she only had a limited amount of sessions, she stopped going.

”I went to two sessions, and the staff there were really supportive. But, then I found out that I would only have six sessions a year, and as a result of that I haven’t wanted to use up my sessions and haven’t gone since,” Laura tells Truthfal.

”That isn’t good, you need to know that you have constant support, not a limited amount.”

“You need to know that you have constant support, not a limited amount.”

One person who agrees with that notion is Harry Bishop, the recently elected FXU President of Community and Welfare, whose campaign included specific plans on how to improve the support services. 

Bishop told Truthfal of an incident that happened last year, when someone Bishop knew, who was suffering with drug problems, had expressed plans of murdering someone. Bishop feared the target could be him, and approached the student support services about the topic, but was simply told that the student had already been given the six therapy sessions they were entitled to.

 

Bishop had his own encounter with the student support when he reported that someone he knew was plotting a murder. (Photo: Christer Davanger)

 

”This is not the student support services’ fault, it’s the funding. Our budget for welfare is shockingly small. What are you supposed to do with such a small budget?” Bishop said.

”But an increased budget isn’t the magical answer to all of these problems. There are a lot of new, creative and cost effective support systems that I think we should be at least trying.”

As a part of his campaign for the FXU elections, Bishop opted to let the voters decide what his fifth and final pledge should be. In the end, the voters decided that the fifth pledge should be dealing with mental health support and improving student support services on campus.

”It was dominating, the amount of people who had issues with student services,” Bishop told Truthfal.

Responding to the high suicide numbers in UK universities, one of the most important points of Bishop’s fifth pledge became the initiative to train all staff on campus, including lecturers and accommodation staff, in suicide prevention techniques, with focus on recognising suicidal tendencies in students. Bishop explains this could help take some of the pressures off of student support services. 

”To be at university, where your personal tutor may be your only point of contact… If they’re not trained properly, students won’t be getting the support they deserve. You might not want to call home, because you don’t want them to know how you’re struggling, because they’ll panic. The staff need to be aware of these problems and know how to appropriately support their students,” Bishop told Truthfal.

”It was dominating, the amount of people who had issues with student services.”

One of the ideas brought to Bishop during his elections, was ASIST – a two-day training course in suicide prevention techniques, which is available in Cornwall for free.

Truthfal spoke with Julia Kennedy, one of the senior lecturers at Falmouth University and also an ex mental health nurse, and asked her what she thought of the possibility of university staff being trained in ASIST.

”I think it’s vitally important that we can recognise mental health issues in students when they have them. I think anything that trains people to recognise those early signs and symptoms of potential suicidal behaviour can only be a good thing,” Kennedy said.

ASIST, training in suicide prevention techniques, is available for free in Cornwall. (Photo: Shutterstock)


However, Kennedy noted that there would have to be clear lines of communication between the trained staff and the institutional professional support.

”There needs to be a clear understanding to what extent people who are not trained as mental health professionals can really get involved in diagnosing or noticing what’s going on with students. Otherwise, I think there are real problems with it becoming something that lecturers may have to take responsibility for. No two-day course is going to be able to train someone effectively enough to do that,” Kennedy said.

While Dickinson did not want to comment on any of these cases specifically when Truthfal approached him, he did say that they were not representative of the feedback he is getting.

“The majority of students don’t have that experience, as far as I’m understanding it. We continue to get a good feedback around quality of service and sufficiency of service, but we are always wanting to listen. What I would not want is something that discourages students from saying something and coming forward,” Dickinson says, encouraging anyone who are struggling to take action and talk about it to someone, whether it be student support or a friend.

For anyone struggling, who are currently waiting for counselling or in need of advice immediately, David Dickinson recommends Silver Cloud,  an online tool to counteract anxiety and depressive thoughts.

Have you ever had any similar experiences with the student support system? Feel free to tell us about it in the comments below or tweet us!