Is the University Doing Enough to Tackle Student Mental Health?

Natasha Austen asks students about their experiences with the University’s support network and counselling.

With a growing awareness of mental health, we would like to assume that institutions like universities are adapting to this issue and ensuring that their students have the support they need. I reached out to students at the University of Leeds to ask what their experiences with the university’s mental health support have been. While this is not an exhaustive survey, it provides a snapshot of some students’ experiences. The response was overwhelming. Clearly, comprehensive and compassionate care is far from the norm for students (who responded) who are struggling with their mental health at university.

Many students need support when they first come to university. This is completely understandable; with the combination of a new city, no familiar faces and being probably the first time living away from home, its likely to cause at least some anxiety, and it can take a while to settle in. Equally, many students come to university with pre-existing mental health issues requiring ongoing support. From the feedback that I’ve received, it appears that neither group is being catered for.

On the plus side, some students reported that their personal tutors and their parent schools were amazingly understanding and supportive, helping them apply for deadline extensions and simply being a non-judgemental voice for people going through a really difficult time. However, others said that they have minimal contact with personal tutors, and their schools’ lack of understanding and simple compassion in terms of deadline extensions, mitigating circumstances and recording lectures was absolutely shocking to me.

Many students found that instead of getting the help that they needed from their schools and the wellbeing team, they were simply flooded with emails about lack of attendance. For instance, one person commented that, following an email from their parent school about lack of attendance, “no one bothered to respond” to their email explaining their mental health issues and requesting support. Their plea was ignored, and they later only received further emails about their attendance. This total disregard for individual circumstances of course only increases the anxiety of students already suffering.

Many people seemed to have similarly disappointing experiences with the lack of help they received. One consistency was the lack of support given to students on years abroad, who felt that they had absolutely no one to turn to if they needed it, nor did anyone check in to make sure they were doing ok while hundreds of miles away from home. One student stated, “it literally felt like I could’ve died out there and they wouldn’t have known”. Others commented that they “felt that the uni could not care less” about them, as they had no one checking how they were doing, at times they really needed support.

Back in Leeds, opinions about the drop-in wellbeing sessions in the union and additional counselling were mixed, with some saying the people there were “incredible” and gave “good advice”, and others saying they definitely needed more support which was not followed through. Some feel forgotten, with one person adding that though they expressed their suicidal thoughts to the uni, they are yet to receive counselling, not knowing if they were “even added to a waiting list or just forgotten about”. Of course, it is great that the university is willing to provide counselling sessions for students. However, waiting lists appear very long and several students reported that applications are often ignored: “I applied for counselling [but] they never replied”. The sessions themselves are also apparently lacking, with some students finding them useless and even “uncomfortable”, and others saying they needed more sessions than they were granted. One student stated that their counselling experience was “awful” and put them off “counselling from other organisations” because they feared they would be the same.

I was appalled to find that multiple students had experienced being told that they “weren’t depressed enough”, as though waiting for students’ mental health to decline further is in any way beneficial. One student confided that they were told they wouldn’t be able to get counselling as they weren’t “suicidal, self-harming or drinking alcohol or doing drugs”. Shouldn’t the focus be on preventing students’ mental health from declining rather than only addressing the issues when it is too late? This is also extremely invalidating for people who probably had to sum up a lot of courage to seek help in the first place. Some students told me that they were in this situation even after expressing genuine fear that they may be a danger to themselves.

Given the enormous pressure and huge waiting lists currently being experienced by the NHS, which show no signs of improvement any time soon, surely it is down to a responsible university to step in and bridge the gap in mental health services? Clearly it is possible to provide the support many students desperately need as I received feedback from some students who had very positive experiences with their schools and personal tutors. However, it is overwhelmingly obvious that more needs to be done to make sure that this becomes universal rather than exceptional. 

Amy Wells, LUU’s Welfare Officer, said in a statement: 

LUU is committed to improving the provision of wellbeing support, on and off campus. We’re about to launch a survey that will evaluate experiences with mental health services (including the Counselling service – I’m hoping to use the results to push for things like culturally competent counselling) so please do leave feedback there that we can show to the University. I’m also currently working with the University to overhaul personal tutoring as personally, I think the system is broken  – it’ll be more of an ‘academic advisor’ role while the Student Support Officer role is developed so every student has a named support officer who is much better trained on mental health and wellbeing.

A University spokesperson said:

“The University takes the mental health and wellbeing of students very seriously. Like every university, we know there is always more to do to improve the wellbeing of our students and we will continue to work in partnership –  with other experts and service providers in the city, including the student medical practice, relevant charities and Leeds City Council – to give students the range of support they need.”

I do not want any of this to prevent anyone from seeking help if they need it. Some students mentioned that they did eventually manage to find support from services such as Leeds IAPT and Leeds Student Medical Practice.