Are they all snowflakes? It’s a charge that’s quite frequently thrown at the current generation of young people. They are pampered and over protected. Their minds are coddled from anything that might cause offence. They’re over-reliant on mental health services rather than standing on their own two feet.
In other words: buck up.
We’ve been thinking about this quite a lot at LMH in the past two terms. An explicit part of our strategy is Support (the other two being Include and Learn). It should be a fairly unexceptional aspiration: we want to give our students the best possible support in order to be able to thrive academically. That’s the easy bit. But dealing with the multiple support needs of 600-odd undergraduates and graduates (not to mention those who teach them or work as staff at LMH) is much more complicated.
‘Buck up’ may work for a small number of students. But two reviews of our welfare arrangements have delved more deeply into how a college can adequately address the multiple emotional, mental health, disability and general wellbeing concerns of students.
The first, by Sarah d’Ambrumeni, Head of the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals at the University of Cambridge, looked into our general processes and staffing and found a system that was working well.
The second, comprising a group of tutors (with input from students and those most directly involved in our welfare provision) looked at some knottier issues such as training, communications, confidentiality, competence and cost. We had interesting discussions about the term ‘fitness to study’ and how we could also develop programmes which might be thought of as ‘support to study’. The Study Skills centre, led by Dr Margaret Coombe (Mallaband 1971 History and Modern Languages), is a key part of our ambition to support students academically.
We are very fortunate in having a highly committed and effective welfare team, led by Helen Barr, as Welfare Tutor. It includes a college welfare adviser/nurse, Anne Harpin; three welfare deans led by a trained clinical psychologist, Vania Pinto; the Chaplain; as well as trained peer supporters and all those around the College (including the Lodge team) who all play their part. The students who contributed to the review said they felt the current welfare arrangements were working very well.
But what’s at the root of all this anxiety and stress? That, too, is hard to pin down: there seem to be many possible causes. There is no denying the strain that is being put on existing services – within the NHS at large as well as the University at individual colleges.
Oxford University Counselling Services (OUCS) reported a significant increase (+10.3 per cent) in student demand for counselling in academic year 2018/19. It anticipates a growth in demand for counselling of around 8 per cent per year. This currently translates into around 11 per cent of Oxford students seeking counselling of some sort in 2018/19. If the same pattern were true of LMH we could expect more than 60 students to seek counselling in an academic year. Many more would see the Welfare Adviser, peer supporters or other members of the welfare team with specific issues.
This increase in demand is placing intolerable pressures on both the NHS and the OUCS. The latter’s annual report for 2018/19 notes: ‘Our concern is that, increasingly, we are underserving students at all levels of need. We believe that we are also placing excessive demands on our counsellors, who are working at an unsustainable level of intensity.’
The pressure to supply welfare support is thus being acutely felt at college level. Most colleges have moved away from a position in which the Senior Tutor or academic team is also responsible for student welfare. There are a variety of other models, with welfare variously being led by a Tutor for Welfare, Dean, Chaplain, Welfare Dean or Welfare Officer. Fourteen colleges have decided to employ a college counsellor provided by the central service.
I asked Maureen Freed, deputy director of the OUCS, for her explanation of this rising demand. Among the reasons she listed were:
· Increasing discontinuity between environment of school and environment of university, and a lack of preparedness to self-direct and self-manage, and to negotiate with competing demands on their time. At school, nearly all challenges are now structured and stage-managed for the student. At university there is much less structure and often students are asked/invited to do much more than is possible, making it necessary for them to set their own aspiration level and be content with something less than perfection.
· Lack of experience coping with failure/setbacks.
· Fragmentation of attention (‘too many tabs open in my brain’) as a result of constant presence of digital devices. Many struggle to concentrate on academic work.
· Effects of social media (fear of missing out – FOMO – constant comparison of their lives with other people’s, need to appear perfect, low self-esteem).
· Challenge of navigating romantic/sexual/emotionally intimate relationships in the age of Tinder.
· Proliferation of gender and sexual identities and relationship models (e.g. polyamory), leading to new challenges for adolescents exploring and establishing identity.
· Inability to sleep (even when they try).
· Established culture of heavy drinking/drug use becoming mainstream.
· Students receiving less relaxed, open attention from adults (parents and teachers), who have less time to offer and who themselves are very anxious and may struggle to offer a ‘containing’ response.
· Individual life and family circumstances (historic trauma, present trauma, mental health problems, autism, difficulty transitioning from other countries, overcoming race, class and other barriers, lack of social or cultural ‘capital’).
· Anxieties about the future (Brexit, degradation of environment, bankruptcy of liberal political institutions, changing nature of work and consequences for employability, leaving university with substantial debt etc.).
In addition, there are the following developments:
· Decreased stigma associated with counselling in the UK and internationally.
· Much broader access to counselling in UK schools (leading to greater propensity to seek this kind of support at university).
· At university, more pressures on academic staff making them less available to provide personal and pastoral support to students and perhaps less able to contain student anxiety and distress.
· Impact of fees on student expectations of what should be provided to them (‘students as consumers’).
Maureen doesn’t believe that either of the two dominant narratives about young people’s mental health are sufficient: the ‘snowflakes’ story, nor its counterpart – that a high proportion of them suffer from mental illness requiring ‘treatment’.
‘They certainly are not snowflakes,’ she says. ‘The level of dysfunction and distress of students approaching our service is at least as high as it has ever been. But they also are not mentally ill. The great majority of students presenting to the counselling service are struggling with a range of developmental and life issues which can be responded to very effectively by a student counselling service, given adequate resources.’
LMH attaches the highest importance to student health and welfare. We do so because it is important in itself for our students but also, in the words of our strategy: ‘The College recognises that academic excellence and student welfare are inextricably linked.’
We are committed to promoting the wellbeing and flourishing of all our students; encouraging and enabling them to find a strong sense of satisfaction in their studies and college life; to develop a sense of meaning or purpose; and the ability to manage stress.