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This October, the Guardian published the results of an investigation by HMIE on university-based student support services in the form of a league table. Second only to The University of Glasgow was Lancaster- with a staggering 127% increase in the number of students seeking counselling and support services since 2008. This figure stands out against the average increase of 33%, but should not be taken as a sign that something is amiss. Instead, I feel these figures should be interpreted as a sign that Lancaster is getting it right when it comes to student support. An NUS report found that 20% of university students consider themselves to have a mental health problem however statistics show only 2% of students are engaged in university-led counselling schemes. This statistic should be receiving far more coverage.
We are all studying at university at a much more stressful time than ever before. We are expected to work harder, to achieve higher degree classifications, to engage in work experience and increase our ‘personal marketability’. This can clearly come into conflict with the contrasting view of university life as a chance to socialise, drink, party and in general have as much fun as possible before descending into the now uncertain and weighty world of post-graduation employment. All of these issues alongside non-university related problems such as relationships, family breakdowns and mental illness in general create a problem for universities and their students.
The interpretation of these results is up for debate. It all seems to come down to a question of perspective. Lancaster is not unique in the problems its students face, raising the question of why we almost top this ‘league table’. In this case it seems clear to me that the increase in demand for counselling at Lancaster is a reflection of the university’s approach to tackling a problem in a more effective way. The availability of services and the awareness of them amongst students is high – services such as the Nightline scheme are advertised heavily across campus (seemingly on the back of every toilet door). These factors, alongside a general, if slow moving, reduction in the stigma associated with mental illness and seeking out help, exemplify the increase.
The Disability Service and the creation of student support plans are effective ways of pre-empting and reducing the likelihood of issues amongst students facing difficulties prior to their arrival. However, the university cannot be expected to eliminate students’ problems before they arise – their response to these problems is the thing that the university should be accountable for, and Lancaster seems to take this responsibility seriously. The figures are a welcome demonstration of a wide and accessible support network within the university.
The initial Guardian article and results of the investigation should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt. I would even go as far as to question the value of publishing the results in the form of a leader-board – one in which you may not want to come out on top. The lack of clarity concerning the figures and their implied connection create a sense of negativity around the results; they could be mistakenly interpreted as a sign that Lancaster is somehow lacking support or is an overly stressful university to attend. This would be an inaccurate and dangerous assumption to make about our institution. The results should be seen as a sign that we are going in the right direction, and provide further reassurance to students in need of support that it is available without any stigma or judgement, and to all who seek it.