More students are seeking independent counselling away from university over fears their academic record will be affected, a support charity has said.
Off The Record (OTR) in Bath said it saw “hundreds of students, year on year” from the city’s two universities.
Director Phil Waters said some people were worried about a stigma if they sought help from their university.
Bath University said that would never be the case and added any students with urgent needs would be seen immediately.
Student Jayme Sims said some of her peers felt the university’s services may have “some other kind of objective” for wanting students to get better.
The 20-year-old sociology student has a youth worker placement at OTR, which supports 18 to 24-year-olds, as part of her degree, after previously using the university’s wellbeing services.
She said: “The university wants you to stay and finish your degree. They have a vested interest.”
Mr Waters added: “[Students] feel there’s perhaps some sort of agenda from the university support staff.”
But Dr Cassie Wilson, vice-president for student experience at Bath University, said that would never be the case.
“Our objective always is to provide advice, support and guidance to any of our students who need it, to help them navigate periods of change and life transitions, and to help them succeed in their studies,” she said.
Former GP at Bristol University, Dominique Thompson – now a national advisor to many universities – agreed.
“The student is at the centre of all decision making, not the university recruitment or retention rates,” she said.
“The reality is most [universities] will absolutely prioritise the student’s wellbeing above everything else, and will even actively advise them to put studies on hold, or leave university if that would be best for the mental health of the young person.”
‘Failure not a option’
Ms Sims said she believed some students struggled because they felt “not worthy” of help.
“There’s this big thing that you cannot ask for mental health support unless you’re at crisis point, unless something has happened to you, such as trauma or abuse or you are actually suicidal.
“A lot of students I have spoken to feel like they are not deserving of that support.
“They feel that by accessing that support when they are experiencing anxiety or depression, it means they have taken away that resource from someone else who is more in need.”
Academic stress has become the number one source of anxiety for university students, according to Dr Thompson.
It is something Ms Sims has experienced first-hand.
She said: “It’s been a lot of anxiety and panic attacks. I am quite a perfectionist and that’s common with students, you feel unless you’re getting top marks, you might as well not do anything. You have to be the best, or nothing.”
“The idea that ‘failure is not an option’ is sadly all too common,” Dr Thompson said. “As a generation they are frightened of letting down their loved ones.”
It is “common that young people don’t seek help [because of that]… whereas we know the sooner you seek help and intervene in a problem, the sooner it will be resolved”, she added.
When Ms Sims needed help, she said Bath University’s drop-in wellbeing hub helped her, as well as private counselling.
“They were important to me. You don’t need an appointment – you can just turn up and talk to someone. I think that kind of accessibility is really important because it means there’s not a lot of pressure.
“Then it took me up to three months to get counselling, but I was very lucky. I was told it was probably going to be around six months.”
Off The Record has been contracted by the university to see up to 50 students a year, “to help ensure greater capacity for counselling students who are desperate for support but have waited longer than is ideal”.
Mr Waters said: “We see a new generation of young people that are very much more open, and that’s really positive, but demand for our services grows.”
Dr Wilson from Bath University added: “This partnership provides an additional counselling resource which helps to bolster what we already offer students.”
A recent survey by mental health campaigner and ex-health minister Sir Norman Lamb, who obtained information from 110 universities under the Freedom of Information Act, showed many universities were still “in the dark” about their students’ health and wellbeing needs and struggled to predict the extent of likely demand for mental health support services.
Bristol University – where 12 students have taken their own lives in the past three years – said it was spending more than £1m a year on well-being services, including counselling.
But the majority of universities have a budget of less than half that.