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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Students 'need more mental-health help'
By Shola Adenekan

Going to university might not be the life-enriching experience those glossy student recruitment brochures portray, especially if you have mental health problem.

Woman with depression
Mental illness often goes undiagnosed at university

Helen Gilburt, 29, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD), halfway through her doctoral studies at university.

The condition brings on a marked tendency to act impulsively without thought for the consequences. It can also bring feelings of emptiness and self-loathing, which can result in self harm and even suicide.

However, NHS mental health services failed to tell her about this diagnosis.

"I don't know why I was not told," she says. "But sometimes professionals like to try not to label people, as it can create a lot of stigma, as well as giving you less hope than if you just had an episode of mental illness."

Helen says her study was badly affected.

'Services did not help'

"I spent days coming into the lab and sleeping or reading and, in between, taking off to the toilets to cut my arms.

"I hate to think what my colleagues went through. I was taken home once after taking an overdose in the lab."

When Helen started showing these symptoms, she says, her academic supervisor was unable to offer support.

Even when she approached student services, there was little appropriate help.

"There could have been more back-up," she said. "I didn't know what was wrong with me. Mental health services had not provided me with a diagnosis, so there was no way I could tell the university.

"But it was clear something was wrong. There seemed to be little mental health awareness. Nobody knew what to do."

Recent studies show one in four students will experience a mental-health problem while at university.

Organisations working with patients say young people are particularly likely to develop severe mental illness.

Liz Nightingale, of the charity Rethink, said: "There are many factors that can trigger mental illness which young people will experience, such as major life events like moving away to a university.

If you don't get help early on, then the social stigma may grow as you get more ill. What is more important is you, forget what other people think.
Helen Gilburt, former student

"It is crucial that people get help early on with symptoms of severe mental illness, which can include hearing voices, delusions and paranoia."

A Rethink severe mental illness report found people waited an average of 18 months before getting help with these kind of symptoms.

Ms Nightingale said: "The good news is that with the right treatment and support, young people can, and do, recover a meaningful quality of life after experiencing mental illness.

With thousands of young people starting universities in a few weeks, how much help is available?

Counsellors say some universities provide excellent services and put considerable time and resources into pastoral care.

"But these support services are often over-subscribed," said Ms Nightingale.

Shorter waiting times

"Some universities are much better than others at meeting the mental health needs of their students."

John Cowley, a student counsellor at Cardiff University and the chairman of the Association of University and College Counsellors (AUCC), says students have the advantage over most people of waiting a relatively short time to be seen.

"The average wait for a first-time appointment is two days," he said. "People who are clearly distressed are seen the same day whenever possible.

"The wait for ongoing counselling can be a bit longer. Unless the problem is severe, a student may wait two to three weeks for an appointment.

"Appointments for community mental health interventions can take several weeks, unless the student is very ill."

Universities are waking up to the needs of their students for mental care, with a recent survey by the AUCC showing more are using counselling services.

'I never knew'

For example, Cardiff University is funding two projects on eating disorders and specialist psychiatry.

Meanwhile, University College Worcester has developed a mental health policy and sets of protocols, made available in a disability folder issued to all services and departments.

These cover what to do in exams, dealing with a student in distress, managing panic attacks and supporting students with mental health difficulties.

However, Ms Gilburt believes universities should take more proactive, rather than reactive, measures.

"I never really knew anything about mental health and the risks of it at university. I don't know if I would have recognised severe mental health illness then.

"There should be awareness campaigns. I think they should advertise more. You always feel you have to have a life threatening illness to seek help. The people who run support services should be better informed.

"It might also be worthwhile to have access to a mental health professional for people who may be experiencing mental illness or for friends and colleagues of someone exhibiting signs and symptoms of mental illness.

"If you don't get help early on, then the social stigma may grow as you get more ill. What is more important is you, forget what other people think.

"You can live in fear of what other people think, but it won't help you. Prove them wrong by getting help. Contact your GP or your student support services."

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