How the University of Sunderland is responding to 'significant rise' in pleas for mental health support

The nights are definitely starting to draw in and for many students there is not as much money to draw out.

Monday, 4th November 2019, 6:08 pm

The initial euphoria of the new university term is often quickly replaced by the harsh realities of life both on and off campus as deadlines and bills begin to loom.

While outsiders may feel students exist in their own carefree bubble, new figures suggest that they are far from immune from everyday pressures.

The number of people seeking help from the University of Sunderland’s wellbeing department has increased by nearly 50% in two years from 884 during the 2016-17 academic year to 1,289 during 2018-19.

University of Sunderland city campus in Chester Road.

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The latest figure is also up 166% over a five-year period and accounted for around one in every 10 of the university’s 12,420 students here in Sunderland.

Yet Tracey McKenzie, who heads the wellbeing service, is keen to stress that the “significant increase” should not necessarily be viewed negatively.

“More students now recognise themselves as having a mental health difficulty and more able to seek support,” she said.

“We would rather they acknowledged they had a difficulty and discussed it with us than keep quiet about it and allow things to get worse.”

Student Emma Naisby, left, with wellbeing services boss Tracey McKenzie. Picture by FRANK REID

Help can range from support for those who have never cooked regularly for themselves before to advice over finding a local GP to register with for existing health concerns.

Ms McKenzie said: “Many of our students are local to the region and approximately 40% of our students are considered mature. For many, they are trying to juggle their studies with employment and family lives, often having caring responsibilities.

“For our international students, not only are they moving to a different country but they are immersed in a completely different culture.

“Social media, of course, has such an impact on the younger generation.

Emma Naisby was helped by the university's wellbeing service.

“We see so many students who are so consumed with worries about body image and identity, impacting upon emotional distress and sense of identity."

With student support services signposted to students on arrival at the university, those requiring wellbeing support are quickly contacted.

Its professional team of mental health practitioners and counsellors then determine each referral’s individual needs and a personalised plan is put in place.

Other internal departments might then be called in to help with associated issues such as accommodation, academic support and finance.

In addition, those with a physical or mental health diagnosis receive support for their academic needs from the disability support team.

External health services can also be called in to deal with more pressing needs.

With 14% of students referring themselves to the service saying they have self-harmed, the university has just launched a new partnership with the local Samaritans through which the charity will visit the main campus on Mondays to hold confidential appointments.

Exercise too plays its important part in easing typical problems such as anxiety, stress and low mood.

Ms McKenzie said: “We regognise the relationship between mental health and physical health and refer students to City Sports, our university gym, for an eight-week personalised programme. This has great value for those who take part.

“For those who don’t like gyms, our chaplain, Chris Howson, organises walks and mindfulness sessions.

“We’ve also got hikes and kayaking sessions delivered by sports development. We take such a holistic approach to student wellbeing”

The increase in Sunderland students using the wellbeing service is somewhat mirrored by the national picture.

While figures up to the end of the last academic year have still to be released, data issued by Universities UK, which represents the United Kingdom’s 136 universities, shows a near 133% increase in the number of students disclosing a mental health condition or accessing such services over a five-year period to 2017.

Among upcoming nationwide initiatives is the launch of the new University Mental Health Charter on December 9 in which universities will have to demonstrate that they have reached certain standards of care and support for their students’ well being.

The University of Sunderland is also currently undertaking its second campus-wide mental health survey to identify current and emerging issues to guide its future services.

Existing feedback suggests that 75% of those who considered leaving the university felt that the wellbeing department’s support was the most significant factor in them eventually deciding to stay.

Emma Naisby contemplated abandoning her community and youth work degree before the service eased her worries and helped her to graduate this summer with a II.i grade.

The department also inspired Emma to continue her studies at the university with a masters degree in inequality and society.

She said: “If you want to get well you need to talk to the people who can help you. Do not struggle by yourself.”

Emma, 28, from Concord, Washington, has fought depression for more than a decade and abandoned her initial degree course in English Literature at Leeds Metropolitan University in 2011.

Diagnosed the following year with bipolar disorder, which triggers mood swings, she eventually returned to full-time education at the University of Sunderland in 2015.

Problems returned, however, during the final year of her course as important deadlines loomed.

Emma said: “I was really struggling. I could not keep up in a lesson, I was anxious, moody, stressed and could not sleep.”

Encouraged by a friend to contact the wellbeing service, she began to speak to a member of staff in confidence on a regular basis.

She said: “She would just reduce problems one by one. If you were trying to make an appointment she would suggest avoiding rush hour so there was one less problem to worry about.”

Emma, who would like a career in youth work, has also thanked her family and employers for their support and patience during her depression.

She said: “Since I have become open about it, other people have spoken to me about their own anxiety and depression. Hopefully that will encourage them to seek help if they haven’t already.”

Ms McKenzie added: “It is about developing a sense of community and letting people know they are part of a team. Team Sunderland we call it. They are not alone.

“We want our students here to look upon their time here as a life changing and a positive experience.

“Their wellbeing is at the heart of their student experience and university is about developing skills for life.”

The university’s student support services can be contacted on (0191) 5152933.

Other useful addresses and numbers include:

Wellbeing, wellbeing@sunderland.ac.uk;

Chaplaincy, chaplain@sunderland.ac.uk;

Samaritans, 116123 and jo@samaritans.org.uk;

Sunderland Headlight mental health resource centre, 0191 510 1494;

Sunderland and South of Tyne Initial Response Team, 0303 1231145.

24/7 support is also available from www.sunderland.ac.uk/silvercloud