A new report by The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has revealed that universities risk “damaging” students by giving them unnecessary counselling for mental health, when it is really a matter of wellbeing.
The report urges institutions to distinguish between wellbeing issues and mental health conditions, to ensure that students receive the correct support for them. It argues that the conflation of the two is not helpful for tackling low levels of well-being or supporting those suffering mental ill-health.
Students with mental health issues may need to see a counsellor, or be referred for treatment on the NHS. However, students with low wellbeing, or those stressed by exams, can help themselves in other ways. The report suggests joining a society, taking up a new hobby, or confiding in a friend about their problems.
The report notes that whilst ‘mental health’ and ‘wellbeing’ are often used interchangeably, wellbeing is generally regarded as a broader term than mental health.
The mental health charity Mind defines the relationship between mental health and wellbeing as follows: “If you experience low mental wellbeing over a long period of time, you are more likely to develop a mental health problem. If you already have a mental health problem, you’re more likely to experience periods of low mental wellbeing than someone who hasn’t.”
David Mair, Head of Counselling at the University of Birmingham, stated that current figures on mental health combine “feeling anxious about exams to depression, which makes it hard to get up in the morning.”
There is a concern that sending people to councillors for wellbeing issues may risk students thinking they have a disorder when they do not. The author of the report, Rachel Hewitt, warns that failing to differentiate between mental health and wellbeing risks students “misdiagnosing” themselves.
Last June, the president of the Royal Society of Medicine, Sir Simon Wessley, warned that universities may be fuelling the mental health crisis by over-medicalising the normal emotions of young adults. This includes mistaking loneliness for depression.
He said there is an “overwhelming mountain of research” indicating that drawing on social networks is the most effective protection against mental health problems. He adds that unlike seeking professional help, friends “don’t involve the risk of maybe thinking you have a disorder when you don’t.”
The report believes that current data on wellbeing within the university environment is limited in terms of coverage and consistency.
Rachel Hewitt said: “If we are to get a grip on the mental health crisis in young people that is heavily impacting on universities, we need to be collecting the right information to understand it. At the moment statistics on wellbeing and mental health are often combined, despite these being two separate issues with different ways they can be tackled. For universities to take the necessary action to address this issue, they need to better understand what they’re dealing with.”
The possibility of institutions collecting their own data on student mental illness and wellbeing is an idea welcomed by Universities UK.
A spokesperson said, “Universities see mental health as a priority and there has been increasing investment across support services. “Across the UK, the number of young adults disclosing mental illness is increasing and this is reflected at universities, where there is rising demand for student support services, driven in part by the underprovision of NHS mental health care for young adults.”
However, he adds, “There is no evidence of disinvestment in support for students with mental health difficulties in favour of wider wellbeing initiatives at UK universities.”
The current Welfare and Equality officer Jack Green commented, “Counselling is generally seen as the go-to for anyone experiencing ill mental health when that isn’t necessarily always the best option. Feedback from students has shown that some people don’t attend the counselling appointments as it’s not really what they needed, but felt pushed into it by a member of staff in their school.
“I’ve been working with the University this year to broaden the scope of what is on offer. The Student Health & Wellbeing service now offers sport classes, Silvercloud (an online programme for mental wellbeing), wellbeing workshops and so much more. I think the most notable change is that you can even borrow a dog to walk. It might sound ridiculous that you can borrow a dog from the service, but it means that you can take some time out to relax, meet other people and get in a bit of exercise.”
Sara Elkhawad, the incoming Welfare and Equality Officer, also noted that counselling is not always the best solution. She says, “not everyone is comfortable with “talking therapy”, especially with someone they aren’t initially familiar with. It’s also extremely difficult to articulate an emotion as intense as something such as bereavement and abuse through conventional speech.
“Instead of pushing the narrative that counselling is the sole way of resolving these issues, the university should provide alternative emotional outlets. In an environment where many people have supressed their artistic side in pursuit of academic study, it is important to create spaces where people can explore this side. I want to run student led workshops that teach people basic skills in a particular artistic field, that they can implement in their lives as a form of “self-help” therapy.
Working with societies, I hope to additionally set up safe-space workshops for social groups suffering from specific mental health problems, to enable these students to confront aspects of their identity which are difficult to express in traditional circumstances.”