Student suicide fears as mental health cuts loom

MENTAL health services at universities that help to prevent stress-related student tragedies are already "fire-fighting" and face severe pressure if budgets are cut, according to an investigation into student support services.

• 'Brilliant' student Tess Maddock, 21, had been expected to win a first class degree in theology at Cambridge but she took her own life in October

The investigation by a senior academic into the impact of the recession on higher education in Scotland has found that vital health support services are at risk as institutions seek ways to reduce spending.

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The findings have emerged at a time when pressures on students from financial worries and uncertainty over future careers are escalating.

A report by Professor John Field, director of the Division of Academic Innovation and Continuing Education at Stirling University, found support service managers were concerned about the growing demands on their limited sources of financial support. As well as increased applications from students for hardships funds, counselling services are "coming under strain, as more students found that financial pressures were putting a strain on relationships and resilience" says the study.

Student leaders fear the vital services will have their funding slashed after the Scottish Budget last month, which will bring a reduction in university spending. Next month, one student union is organising a "mental health week" to highlight how students can get access to stress-busting mental-health related activities.

The move follows the death of several students in England this year, who are believed to have taken their own lives because of increasing stress. The three suicides prompted Cambridge University to review its student counselling programme with a study at the university citing exam stress, depression and perfectionism as factors influencing students' mental well-being.

The body of Tess Maddock, 21, was recovered from the sea beneath cliffs at Beachy Head, East Sussex, on 30 October. A keen hockey player, described as a "brilliant" student, she had been expected to win a first class degree in theology from Jesus College when she graduated next year. A month earlier, university rower George Starling, 19, was found dead in his student flat in Cambridge. Then on 11 October, Bulgarian-born law student Pavel Kantchev, 22, was found dead in his room at Girton College.

For his report, Field interviewed the managers who provide student counselling services at Scottish universities. One service manager described his service as "on the edge". He said: "Several lecturers had noticed that students were increasingly likely to be working, and thus unavailable for classes sometimes, or too tired to study. Some also claimed that increasingly, students became ‘upset' or distracted because they had lost a part-time job, and in a difficult labour market were unable to make ends meet."

Field, who warns the financial situation will only get worse for the higher education sector, said: "Student support services are clearly stretched, and the accounts at present indicate that they are fighting the fires in front of them, rather than anticipating the more severe challenges that now appear inevitable."

Matthew McPherson, welfare convener of the Edinburgh University Students Association, said: "Because of the recession there is more competition in the jobs market and that puts pressure not only on the student but also on parents who can't contribute as much. And there is more pressure than ever on students to pass assessments and exams, because of the greater competition."

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Mental health and other student support services were seeing the strain in parts of the university community not usually affected, he revealed. "First and second year students were never as worried about their future as they are now." McPherson said. "Now, there is so much competition and financial pressure it is not just fourth years feeling the pressure."

As a result, Edinburgh University Students' Association (EUSA) is organising a week of events next month to help students cope. Events will include relaxation workshops, yoga, art sessions, a body confidence workshops and sessions on creative mental health awareness.

Field's findings follow a recent National Union of Students survey, Silently Stressed, which found that 40 per cent of universities said their mental health provision was unable to meet soaring demand. The research also found 75 per cent of university mental health services reported increased demand from last year.

Of nearly 2,000 students surveyed, 90.5 per cent said exams and assessments were the biggest cause of stress. Career prospects worried 75.2 per cent, 68.2 were stressed they wouldn't have enough money to get by, and 54.6 per cent were concerned about their self-image.

Jennifer Cadiz, depute president of NUS Scotland, said: "With the increase in student mental health issues and stress rates, vital services such as counselling need to be better funded, not axed."