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Mental Health Care: An Academic Lottery?

Starting university can be a daunting time for even the most confident, but for some, this experience is complicated by the challenges of a mental illness

This May the National Union of Students found that twenty percent of students considered themselves to have or have had a mental illness. With this statistic in mind, it is reassuring to know that Queen Mary’s Advice and Counselling Service is ranked first in the Russell Group by i-graduate (Autumn 2013). Yet access to these services, and ultimately a struggling student’s ability to succeed on their course, can be affected by a student’s choice of subject.

Each academic school within Queen Mary appears to handle issues relating to academic difficulties in distinctly different ways, namely how they communicate with the various pastoral care services. In some schools, on the disclosure of mental health difficulties, students are put in contact with the services at their disposal and, through the help provided, continue on their course unhindered. Yet in others this vital communication is lacking and some of the most vulnerable students are allowed to slip through the net.

On request, students can access highly effective one-to-one counselling as well as extensive pastoral support from a range of sources. However, these services require students to actively reach out to them by disclosing their situations or conditions in order to receive help. Not only this, but on a fundamental basis students have to be aware of the help on offer.

I spoke to Laura SeQuiera, Head of the Advice and Counselling Service, about what they are doing to tackle student awareness and accessibility. She described how even before coming to Queen Mary students with pre-existing conditions are contacted by the services after disclosure of their condition on UCAS application forms.

The Disability and Dyslexia Service’s Mental Health Coordinator, Niall Morrissey, states: “the best thing a student can do is disclose their condition to the university, so we can provide them with the support they need.” The Advice and Counselling Service is also working with the Student Union to increase awareness of not only support but mental health in general, among other things.

Nevertheless all these processes rely on the student to reach out, with those most vulnerable least likely to do so. The service cannot force students to ask for help but it is at this point the important role of the academic schools comes into place. As the first point of contact for any student, it is within an academic school where anomalies in a student’s participation on the course, which could indicate a need for extra support, are first noticed. From this information, and from direct contact with a student, the school plays a crucial role in connecting that student with the range of support on offer to them. And yet, this communication and the ability to efficiently safeguard vulnerable students varies from school to school in something of an academic lottery.

In fact, this is an issue Queen Mary is aware of, having undertook a study two years ago, which uncovered the discrepancy of care between academic schools and students’ awareness of services on offer to them. These studies led to the creation of the Engagement, Retention and Success scheme, which aims to bridge this gap between academic schools. The scheme has made progress, creating a student support policy which outlines the pastoral staff members each school should have and the level of care they should provide in order to create a unified system.

On top of this, they are working with Advice and Counselling to train academic staff to observe student behaviour that could indicate the need for further support. The scheme is also trialling this year a new electronic “QEngage” system which tracks “engagement markers”, such as seminar attendance, to highlight when a student might be struggling. These developments are both promising and impressive, but we are left asking why this problem took so long to identify.

The stigma surrounding mental health issues surely contributed to the way in which students felt unable to reach out to academic schools, leading to school practices going unchecked and unchallenged for so long. Students’ mental health needs to be at the forefront of the minds of all schools in order to properly protect its students and ultimately, following the fee increase, its high-paying customers. The time taken to identify this issue is surely indicative of the challenging nature of mental health issues and the care needed to support students with them.

The Advice and Counselling Service is located on the ground floor of the Geography Building, on the Mile End Campus. The entrance is located on the west side of the Geography building. Opening hours are 9.30am-4.30pm Monday to Friday during term time.

You can also ring QM Advice and Counselling on 020 7882 8717 during the opening hours listed above, or visit their website www.welfare.qmul.ac.uk for more information.

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