Written by Marta Pozzi.
Edited by Francesca Lombardo.
Now more than ever, life for university students can be challenging and stressful. Therefore, students and their mental wellbeing should be supported by universities through free and constructive counselling services. This piece will argue that the psychological help offered by many universities – with a focus on the University of Aberdeen – is not enough for students to be able to successfully deal with their worries in the long run. I will point out the shortcomings of counselling services in universities, including the insufficient talking time and the inability to engage meaningfully with a counsellor, which are particularly pressing in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on students. I have always applauded the attention our University has been giving to students’ mental health, and that is why I wish to raise this concern which I believe is shared among students.
Life as a university student can be challenging and stressful. For many of us, it is the first time living alone in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, all while trying to juggle studies, extra-curricular activities, worrying about our future careers and life plans. Now more than ever, the Covid-19 pandemic has confronted students with enormous difficulties such as loneliness, loss of income, fear for their loved ones and themselves. All these issues obviously impact students’ mental health, which is extremely important for their success and wellbeing. Thus, adequate free mental health support should be provided.
Although this piece will mainly focus on the University of Aberdeen’s counselling services, similar criticism can be raised about many other universities both in the UK and abroad. In previous years, the University of Aberdeen offered students four counselling sessions that were spread over several months (with a considerably long waiting list to start with). However, due to the pandemic and the subsequent high volume of requests, both from students and staff, appointments have been understandably cut down to one 50-minute long session for each student. While, on the one hand, waiting times have shortened considerably; on the other, this ‘one-at-a-time focused counselling’ does not, in my opinion, provide long-term help to students’ mental health necessities. Even though the possibility to ask for further help is always there, I believe that this new setup may ultimately be detrimental for students for several reasons.
Firstly, by reducing the talking time so drastically, counsellors are not able to establish a good and trusting relationship with students, making it a lot harder for them to open up. This lack of continuity also reflects negatively on the students’ ability to explore and explain the sources of their issues in a meaningful and productive manner. Such one-off counselling services could have an unfavourable impact on the communication between counsellors and students. I believe that it will only provide short-term solutions instead of the real help many students need. On the one hand, it is inevitable that, in such a short amount of time, the only suggestions counsellors can give are related to “easily-fixable” lifestyle habits such as sleep routines, diets, exercise, and so on. While these are a good starting point to improve one’s mental health, most of this information can be found in websites, leaflets or apps. On the other hand, what university students would really benefit from is a space where they are guaranteed the counsellors’ time to listen to their complex and personal problems while figuring out a way to tackle them – which, for the quality of the service, cannot be done in a short time. Although I appreciate that the aim of ‘focused counselling’ is different from that of a multiple-session approach, I believe that the latter can have a more meaningful impact on students. It is fundamental to provide such free services to people who may not be able to afford this kind of help outside of the University.
Having said this, I understand the strain on universities and counsellors to accommodate the number of students seeking support and I appreciate the many campaigns and programmes that are organised, for example, during exam times. However, I feel that it is important to highlight how many students, myself included, do not feel adequately supported by the counselling services in place. I am aware that our University has always been attentive towards the mental wellbeing of its students and that is why I wish to raise my concerns.