As is often the case, the years spent at university, like most things in life, are never completely straight
forward and without glitches. As students will realise soon after arriving in their first year, the academic education you receive here is, in the grand scheme of things, not as important as the life skills and ways of the world which you will understand more and more as you progress through the four years spent here. Sometimes, this progress is more difficult to find than one would think, and it is here where the pastoral care offered by the university has a vital role to play in the well-being of students.
One of the most common obstacles students face at university is mental health issues; the National Union
of Students that 1 in 5 young adults will face a mental health problem whilst completing higher education.
In St. Andrews there are many port of calls available to those who are struggling with their mental health.
One of the main options is an appointment made with the Support Advice and Counselling teams. Students can have individual sessions or regular counselling sessions over a period of time. Confidential and reassuring, students can use the allotted time period to discuss any matter which may be troubling them with the support team. They offer a professional service in which they listen and offer advice on topics ranging from exam stress to home and family concerns.
Should the problem be recurring to such an extent that it interferes with the student’s studies and academic
pursuits, the student may request to take a leave of absence, also called a temporary withdrawal from study.
There are a number of reasons as to why a student may request a leave of absence. As well as struggling with
academics in general, other factors include situations which may contribute to academic problems, such as
bereavement, finance problems and mental and physical illness. Ranging from one semester to a year, students
are not permitted to live in university accommodation whilst on leave, but can still contact Student Services if
they need to do so. During this time, students can temporarily put their studies to one side and try to determine the nature of the problem (as well as a resolution), and continue with their academic pursuits when it is more beneficial to do so.
If the extraneous circumstance is not major enough to warrant a leave of absence, there are still a wealth of
options open to the student to receive support. As well as Student Services, there are many other portals in the
university which provide support, such as the student societies concerning personal matters such as St. Andrews LGBT Society and Student Minds which promotes awareness of mental health as well as mental well-being itself. For those who are of a religious affiliation, the strong links between the university and the chaplaincy in St. Salvator’s provides support for matters such as bereavement.
For students who are staying in halls, the team of wardens are there to support any student who may need
their services. In each hall there are drop-in sessions every evening where any concerns whether they are domestic, academic or pastoral (as well as any potential roommate tension) can be discussed. As the team is small, as the academic year progresses, the student will get to know them well. Although some students may prefer the anonymity of a counsellor who doesn’t know them personally, others may find it easier to talk to someone who knows them to a certain extent, rather than a counsellor who, while trained, is for all intents and purposes, a stranger.
If anonymity is something which students prefer, however, the service Nightline provides both a phone line as well as an online instant messaging account.
This is where the university’s level of care really comes into its own, as it is run by neither professional counsellors nor even paid workers, but by students who selflessly volunteer to give up their nights to provide support for any problem which may lead another student to contact them.
As it clear by the university’s student services web page with a long list of ‘personal matters’, which are merely a selection of the vast wealth of issues for which a student may want to seek support, there are many factors which can affect a student’s performance at university. However, with the multitude
of options available for students, ranging from professional counselling to night-time phone lines, it is clear
that the university is making every opportunity to help its students through any extenuating circumstances they may face, no matter what their nature is, is given equal consideration.
Augmenting suicide statistics amongst students and the startling prevalence of mental illness
amongst young people in general is clearly worrisome. Ought as much as possible be done to ensure the mental
health, stability, and overall well-being of every individual student at any given university? Of course. I suspect
that few would argue to the contrary, and those who do have most likely never endured – either personally
or vicariously – the harsh realities of mental illness; the stigma, the fear of speaking out, and the subsequent difficulties in seeking help.
There have, tragically, been cases of mental illness which have lead to suicide amongst the student body of St. Andrews. Clearly, this demonstrates that there have been massive oversights, and I imagine there have
been others which, thankfully, have not had such unimaginably awful endings.
Though student services should be continuously endeavouring to better the systems they have in place in order to ensure that every sufferer has access to whatever medical and/or psychological care that they need, I do not believe that their failings are the root cause of the mental health issues prevalent in St Andrews. It is impossible for them to be constantly aware of the frame of mind/medical history/whereabouts of every single student.
Though it may be in part justified, I feel that the anger towards student services stems from our need to have
someone else to blame – the success of bogus PPI insurance companies speaks to this. I feel this relates to our very human need for seeking definite meaning – the reason we are all currently here in St Andrews, studying,
is to receive an academic degree, and what is academia if not, ultimately, the pursuit of answers to our questionings? However, finding reason is not always possible – sometimes, awful things happen which do not align with rationality, and it is nobody’s ‘fault’, just the sadness of reality. To apportion blame – whether it be to student services or otherwise – is neither a rational nor helpful response to the real problems posed by mental
St Andrews already has many initiatives in place to promote the importance of mental health. For example, the university holds an annual mental health week to raise further awareness, and there are various societies and charities dedicated to helping people – such as Nightline, a ‘confidential, anonymous listening and information service’ which is run by a team of student volunteers. This surely demonstrates that there is a definite effort amongst our student body to foster sensitivity and to promote an environment of openness and security in our town. Of course, student services must take their portion of responsibility for the well-being of our students, but we too – as students ourselves – must accept our fair share. The mental health of those around us is just as much our responsibility – and perhaps more so – as it is student services’. Perhaps if we spent less time picking over the supposed failings of student services and more time paying attention to and choosing to be gracious and kind towards those around us, there would be less need for such services in the first place. I firmly believe that we have immense power to help those around us and we ought to utilise this to the best of our ability.
We must recognise, too, how far we have progressed in terms of our understanding about mental illness since the start of the 20th century. We have come a long way since the days in which soldiers were put to death by firing squad and labelled ‘cowards’ thereafter as a result of the lack of general education and understanding
about post traumatic stress disorder. And it was not until the tragic case of singer Karen Carpenter’s battle with
anorexia nervosa in the 70s and 80s that the reality of eating disorders, and the need to discuss them without taboo or stigma, began to come to light.
My re-focussing of this article upon what we have already achieved regarding mental illness is not intended to demean the importance of those cries for help which still go unanswered, but rather to suggest that we
are positively progressing, have been for some time, and will, with good intention and perseverance, continue
to do so.