Focus: Mental health and welfare support

University can be conceptualised as a microcosm of society as a whole. A community with the same interests and enjoyments of wider society, but also with the same challenges. One of these challenges which seems to be increasingly important with the pressures of modern society is mental health problems. Whether the University is successful or not in providing adequate resources for those suffering with mental health issues is up for debate, but what cannot be disputed is that resources are there, a multi-layered system of support to appeal to different people’s sensibilities.

At a college level are both welfare reps and peer supporters. Perhaps helpful for a first point of call for those suffering from milder issues and are unsure of what steps to take, but limited in the support that can be given? Nevertheless, some people seem to be happy with the support given by these services. I surveyed 170 students at the University on their experiences of mental health support and the responses were illuminating. A member of New College said that they think Welfare Reps and Peer Supporters are “a really great resource,” but another student said that they were “insufficiently advertised”. This seems to represent a greater trend- the variety in provision for college support varies dramatically between different colleges. It  may be effective in one, and not the other.

More serious issues require a more professional outlook, and for that there is the free Counselling Service at the University. Out of those surveyed, 36 per cent said that they had used this service, which seems to be slightly more than general trends throughout the population, with 1 in 4 expected to need professional support for mental health issues in any one year. Out of these students, a staggering 31 per cent said that this service was not effective, with complaints of long waiting times and a “conveyer belt service”. These criticisms seem to have a lot in them. The service is a self- proclaimed short term support base where they try to achieve a fast rate of turnover in order to deal with the extremely high demand. According to their website, 51 per cent of clients are seen for 1- 3 sessions. It would be wrong to generalise and think that these people required more sessions but were turned away, but the results of the survey seem to suggest that in some cases this is what happens, or at least this is what they think will happen.This is not just a problem at Oxford University, or universities in general, but in the NHS’s provision for mental health as a whole. This has led to a situation in which some students have felt stigmatised by the service; not ‘ill enough’ to warrant its use. Clearly, more funding would be a sensible way to counteract these issues, but whether this will happen or not is out of the University’s hands to a great degree.

A further issue seems to be that people do not use the support resources on offer as they fear that they will not be effective. Many people cite experiences of friends or stories that they have heard. Moreover, 52 per cent of people say that they do not feel sufficiently informed of the resources of support on offer. So, the problem may not be the support itself but rather the perceptions of this support. Again this is indicative of wider problems in society with stigmas against mental health that can make it hard to speak out. If people do not feel as if it will be worth their while, they do not even try to get help. This is frustrating but easily fixed with more advertising, a general will to talk about mental health as is being done by OUSU’s Mind Your Head campaign which aims to reduce stigma and more encouragement to seek support if it Is needed. After all, the counselling service can be effective for some people, with 21 per cent stating it to be very effective, and a further 45 per cent claiming it is somewhat effective.

The sheer plurality of these services is positive. It would be wrong to conform people suffering from mental health issues to a particular way of dealing with these problems. And of course, mental health issues encompass many specific and varying issues. Some permanent disabilities, some temporary periods of stress, or anxiety- and it is encouraging that the systems of support reflect this. Of course, there are likely to be positive and negative facets to each type of support on offer, as there would be in any network of support. As I said, university is a microcosm of society and so some of the criticisms made are symptomatic of wider issues currently faced. Yet most importantly, it seems that a main issue that comes with the system is not the help itself- but the publicity of this help. Only with full awareness of the support on offer for students in Oxford can the current state of mental health improve.