I may have been a very insensitive person back in the 1970s when I was a student, but I have to say honestly that I cannot remember any of my fellow students suffering any form of psychological distress. Of course we don’t ever know what goes on in someone else’s mind, and how much distress some people learn to absorb before they eventually snap. There must have been some who were stressed by examinations, personal relationships, concerns about whether they would find employment, and so forth. But I was not aware of any of this, nor was I aware of any university support services that might have helped those in need of them. Indeed in preparing to write this post, I have dug out the booklets and manuals and information I was given when I was a fresher, and there is no reference in them to any counselling or similar services; though there is, believe it or not, a robust defence of the use of recreational drugs. Well, it was the 1970s.
Thankfully most universities nowadays employ professional counsellors who can support students in difficulty. And while I cannot imagine that there were no students with such needs 40 years ago, it seems clear to me that the stresses and pressures that might create these needs are much stronger nowadays. Recently for example it was reported that 1,300 students of the University of Glasgow saw a counsellor in the last academic year: that is about 7 per cent of the entire student body. Students enter university with huge pressures: financial, personal, professional, academic. Not only are these pressures common, they tend to affect those most who have nobody to talk to to relieve them. The variety of problems counsellors may encounter and the complex needs of those seeking help are shown in this account of the work of a counsellor at a Canadian university.
Mental health and wellbeing are vital in higher education institutions. So universities need to provide and value the work of professional counsellors, sometimes also of chaplaincies or indeed student initiatives (such as the ‘Please Talk‘ programme in Ireland). Whatever form these services take, they should be strongly supported by universities everywhere. The key principle should be that, whatever your problem, you must know that you need never be alone. Never.