The Blog

Giving Thanks to Student Support Staff

It's almost exactly five years since I graduated. When I look back, despite some excellent lectures, the university faces I remember most are not academics, but support staff. I'm sure that for a significant proportion of graduates it's the same. Support staff deserve their dues.

It's almost exactly five years since I graduated. When I look back, despite some excellent lectures, the university faces I remember most are not academics, but support staff. I'm sure that for a significant proportion of graduates it's the same. Support staff deserve their dues.

Popular culture would tell us that it's academic staff that most shape our education. Films such as Good Will Hunting and Educating Rita paint an image of a transformational relationship between student and professor. While such experiences may continue in schools, for the most part, the conditions that might have allowed this to happen in higher education no longer exist.

Near doubling of staff-student ratios, increasing research burdens, and more rigid staff-student policies have constricted and impoverished contact time. While the intellectual aspect of education has been tightly harnessed by assessments, the emotional part, so fundamental to the kind of educational transformations described in popular culture, has been neglected. As universities have become atomised and unusual emotions have been swept into medical categories, academics have been forced to retreat from personal connection, leaving behind an ever growing burden that's being picked up by counsellors and mental health staff.

Counsellors and mental health staff have an extraordinarily difficult job. Increasing demand comes in the midst of brutal funding constraints. Support staff are trained to help manage the unique differences and individual needs of students, but in a climate of standardisation - fuelled by the commodification of higher education - the presence of individual needs and differences is what universities are most obliged to conceal. If people are seen as having unique needs then a one-size-fits-all model of education is no guarantee of success.

A rise in reported suicides and mental health issues amongst students should speak for itself about the need to prioritise student support. But where there is high level recognition of a support problem, we are witnessing a diffusion of responsibility - a 'bystander effect' - where university management is suggesting responsibilities lie with individuals, or with NHS services.

But in spite of efforts to deflect responsibility for emotional needs away from institutions, the last few years has seen a marked rise in demand for student counselling. As much as we may wish to deny our weaknesses and dismiss our differences, in ever greater numbers we are seeking support in managing them.

Humility is a prerequisite for becoming a counsellor. If it's not there at the start of their training, it is after completing the 450 hours of counselling necessary for accreditation. Unlike with other therapeutic traditions, counsellors do not start from a position of authority or detachment. They begin with respect for their client; confidence in his or her capacity for self-direction. Their method is one of modesty and non-prejudice, which makes them averse to loudness and showiness. They go unnoticed until they are needed.

By contrast, mental health advisors often come from a social work background and tend to be more extroverted. They need to be. The sector's crude severing of our emotional part from the intellectual (as further implied by the Chief Executive of Universities UK recently feeling compelled to emphasise that, "institutions are academic, not therapeutic communities") has seen the emergence of campus mental health specialists tasked with mopping up the mess from this dismemberment of education. Often singlehandedly, mental health advisors are doing extraordinary work to encourage self-care, assist vulnerable students, and promote preventative efforts, such as with University Mental Health Day.

Perhaps I'm more aware than most of the work that support staff do and more obliged to thank them. Without Nigel and the counselling team at Leeds, fellow undergrad, Dominic Martin, and I would have been unable to develop his idea of a mental health society. Without the benefit of an enterprise scholarship and mentoring from the brilliant enterprise support team, we wouldn't have been able to spin off an organisation to 'bring mental health out of the shadows on campuses'.

Seven years have passed, and while there are now student mental health societies across the UK and overseas that have drawn attention to mental health and prepared students for future careers in mental health, journalism or management, counselling and mental health staff continue to selflessly toil with little recognition. They need more resources, and until they receive it, we have not achieved our goal.

There have been some encouraging signs of late, with local student protestors taking a stand to protect support services. But as long as managers and politicians dismiss the emotional needs of students, the demands placed on counselling services and mental health staff will only continue to grow. While we might feel angry at this, perhaps we should start by appreciating and thanking our support staff for what they do.

It is often said that we don't know who our friends are until we need them. We don't know when we'll need help. But students and staff can feel confident that when they do, counsellors and mental health staff will be there to help. Let's not neglect them.

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