Safe spaces are a symptom of student support failings

This article was also published at HuffPost. 

Debate around safe spaces, trigger warnings and university censorship erupted online during the latter half of 2015. One of the articles that sparked debate was a front page feature in the The Atlantic, ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, in which Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt claim that a culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces may be making students’ mental health worse.

The mental health of students remains a major concern globally, so I spoke with leading trauma psychologist and Harvard Professor, Richard McNally, about Lukianoff and Haidt’s claim. Professor McNally appeared to be in agreement, saying, “Although unquestionably well-intentioned, trigger warnings and their implied counsel of avoidance are likely to be counter-therapeutic for students.”

The conclusion seems simple enough: students ought to be exposed to anxious situations, so any students promoting safe spaces and trigger warnings are being unhelpful towards struggling peers. But is it really that simple?

Research suggests that the therapeutic framework known as ‘exposure therapy’ is not without controversy, and, crucially, that it requires close management by a trained therapist. If this is the case then while blanket avoidance is unhelpful, blanket exposure isn’t necessarily therapeutic, either. There is a judgment call to be made about what’s appropriate for the individual, and it’s one that neither students nor academics are typically trained to make.

In the minds of Lukianoff and Haidt, exposure should be the default, and students have no authority to impose forms of ‘avoidance’ on their peers. Some of the world’s most distinguished academics and intellectuals appear to agree. But despite condemning the actions of students, few of the critics have talked about what ought to instead be done to help distressed students.

Lukianoff and Haidt devote over seven thousand words to arguing why students shouldn’t avoid troubling ideas, but they give just two words of advice to those with struggling in spite of (or because of) exposure: “get treatment”. No advice is offered as to how students might do this; nor any consideration of whether such services are readily available. As with most of the criticism of trigger warnings and safe spaces, the circumstances facing genuinely distressed students don’t appear to be a primary concern.

Civil liberties might be a more popular discussion point, but the failing of support services is an issue highly relevant to debates about campus censorship. “If certain course material produces intense distress”, said Professor McNally, “then students should strongly consider seeking psychological treatment.” When I pressed him on where he believes responsibility for this lies, he made it clear that it goes beyond the students, adding, “universities need to know how to refer students to therapists best trained to help them overcome the effects of trauma.”

It’s a given that students struggling with mental health issues should seek out professional support. But a brief glance at the state of support services shows that finding what they need is far from straightforward, and that universities continue to fall short of Professor McNally’s guidance. In the UK, mental health services have faced heavy criticism over cuts; university counselling services are overstretched; and the culture of pastoral care in higher education that previously saw university staff informally care for students has all but disappeared.

Lukianoff and Haidt are apparently either oblivious to these issues, or consider them irrelevant. But without adequate support services, the burden for helping struggling students increasingly falls on their peers. Some of these will be manageable struggles; others less so. It should be of little surprise, then, that students are growing more active and outspoken on the issue of student welfare.

Instead of criticising the methods of those students stepping up to try and help their peers, we can admire their compassion, and respect their determination to plug a failing support system. And if civil liberties campaigners don’t want this to deteriorate into censorship then they can join efforts to make sure that adequate support exists.

What happened to pastoral care?

This article was also published at HuffPost. 

We might be talking more about mental health at university, but there is a related concept, one more rooted within the tradition of higher education and yet crucial to any current discussion about mental health in education, that seems to have faded from view.

In an article for Times Higher Education last week, Anthony Seldon became the first university vice-chancellor to call out universities for not doing enough to protect students’ mental health. Those familiar with Dr. Seldon and his work on well-being at Wellington College and Action for Happiness will not have been surprised by what he had to say. But the article featured an expression that has been conspicuously absent from most of the conversations on mental health in higher education: ‘pastoral care’.

Over the past 10 years or so, usage of the expression has diminished. The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ 2011 95-page report on the ‘Mental health of students in higher education’ contains 290 references to ‘mental health’ and 56 for the word ‘well-being’, but just for 3 for ‘pastoral’ – with 2 of those referring to GP practices. By contrast, the previous report, published in 2003, was just 66 pages but contained 12 references to ‘pastoral’ – 2 more than ‘well-being’.

Part of the preference for ‘well-being’ over pastoral care can be attributed to the secularisation of university campuses. Wikipedia describes pastoral care as “emotional and spiritual support”. The idea of ‘spiritual support’ can seem old fashioned and unpopular, whereas well-being has been a popular subject of study amongst psychologists and economists.

Perhaps there is more to it than that. The Oxford Dictionary defines pastoral careas “relating to or denoting a teacher’s responsibility for the general well-being of pupils or students”. Central to this definition is the assumption that teachers (and educational institutions) have a responsibility for the well-being of students. Does the loss of the term ‘pastoral care’ reflect that we no longer tend to hold universities responsible for student welfare?

Widening access to higher education has brought sharp increases in the number of students. The effects of falling staff-student ratios on students have been compounded by pressure on academics to increase their research output. This isn’t how it’s meant to be. In the earliest days of western education, teachers might have had an entire week to devote to one or a handful of students. Today, students with a scattering of weekly classes can consider themselves fortunate if their lecturer even knows their name.

Some of the changes in higher education are inevitable. Most of us can’t afford to employ a private tutor. It’s unavoidable that giving more people the chance to attend university will mean sacrificing some of the small-group time between staff and students. But the disturbing thing is that we barely seem to have noticed this sacrifice.

Growing (and justified) criticism over inadequate funding for mental health services has overshadowed general wellbeing and support needs. And while university lobbying groups can argue that responsibility for treating those with mental illness largely rests with the NHS, the same cannot be said of general student well-being. There has always been an assumption that when a student arrives at university, their parents are handing over duty of care to the institution. In recent years, this assumption has become less and less justifiable.

There is a trend in academia towards distinguishing intellectual needs from emotional needs, and then trying to monopolise the former and dismiss the latter – something Dr. Seldon refers to as an “unhelpful divide”. This seems like an understatement. Intellectual development necessarily involves emotional upheaval. Good teaching helps steer us through that. As recent debates about trigger warnings and safe spaces show, if educational institutions ignore emotional needs then it’s not just our mental health that suffers, but also our intellectual growth.

If we acknowledge this as a problem, then it’s one that goes beyond the education sector, and dates back decades. The individualism championed under a Thatcher government tends to emphasise personal responsibility; the expansion of universities under a Blair government have made it harder for to provide individualised support, and the economics of higher education lead us to prioritise numbers before norms.

None of this means that pastoral care is doomed, and reinvigorating it doesn’t necessarily depend on reversing student numbers. Universities can prioritise (and monitor) personal tutoring, develop mentoring schemes and strengthen support services. But if we expect universities to take responsibility for the well-being of students then we need to tell them this. And, crucially, to recognise those that do it well.

Are universities less healthy than they used to be?

This post was originally published to Huffington Post.

A journalist called me during a morning meeting recently to ask if I thought university was “unhealthy”. The question caught me off guard. It is not one those of us working in higher education tend to ask.

The existence of universities is such a given, and their place in society so highly valued, that to ask if they are ‘unhealthy’ can seem almost blasphemous. And anyhow, universities are just places of study, how can we generalise about whether they are healthy or not?

My initial response to the question was to point out that each institution is different, with differing support provisions and varied programs of study, so we can’t make sweeping claims. But the words coming out of my mouth left me uneasy. While I suggested that we can’t generalise the university experience, I realised that this is precisely what higher education lobbyists do.

Ministers and lobbyists speak of the value of a university education and of the higher salary one can expect. In doing so, they use what statisticians call an ecological fallacy– where the average in a group is used to wrongly infer the likelihood of something occurring for an individual. Lobbyists rarely make reference to individual differences – between institutions, between programs, between what’s right for particular people. Perhaps, then, we are reasonable in employing the same sort of sweeping judgments when considering the healthiness of a university education.

To answer a question like that on numerical data alone is problematic. We are relying on case-control studies, pitting those that went to university against those that did not. Such studies are inherently flawed measures of causality because healthy, wealthy parents are likely to send their healthy, well-supported children to university. Just as those attending university tend to have a head-start in terms of wealth over their non-graduating peers, so too do they in regards to health. Quite simply, there is no suitable control group.

Another issue with case-control studies is that they draw their conclusions over extended periods of time. For a stable and standardised intervention, like a pharmaceutical drug, that’s not an issue. But universities, economies and working environments are so changeable that a university education is anything but standardised. Graduating 10 or 20 years ago could be, and probably is, completely different to graduating in 2015.

If we wanted to use health related data from previous years to infer something about universities today, we might draw worrying conclusions based on rising suicide ratesand demand for counselling. But to avoid making claims based on historic data that doesn’t necessarily apply to institutions today, we can also break a university education down into its characteristics and constituents, and consider these against evidence-based determinants of health. When we do that, things don’t look much better.

One of the most studied social determinants of health is social support. In going to university, most students are moving away from their family homes and childhood communities, removing themselves from their most sustaining support units, which offered food and shelter, emotional support and the preventive healthcare that tends to be offered by one’s parents. In its place, they have access to informal support from university staff and peers, as well as formal student support services. These services consist of specific advice and guidance for students, as well as counselling services. While all universities have counselling services, waiting lists tend to be lengthy, and services have had their funds stretched since the recession – even in spite of rising tuition fees and rising demand.

In a recent publication, the Chief Executive of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, seemed to downplay the obligation of universities to provide adequate counselling and mental health services, saying, “institutions are academic, not therapeutic, communities”.

This is troublesome for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s all very well to suggest that students ought to use community health services, as Dandridge seems to be implying, but most students are spending up to 9 months away from the communities they are familiar with. If students are expected to transition to community services in their university town, who else is going to support that transition and facilitate access to community services if not the university? To deny responsibility for that seems to show both a disregard for any adverse health events students may suffer, as well as discriminating against those students bringing existing health conditions. When we reflect on recent concerns raised by Stephen Hawking, universities hardly seem to be the progressive institutions that we like to think.

Secondly, while we might accept the claim that universities are places for growth and learning, rather than for correcting health issues, the attempt by Dandridge to disconnect academic and pastoral aspects of study suggests a worrying ignorance of what it means to be human.

As much as places of higher learning might wish to imagine humans only as ‘thinking beings’ without emotions or bodies, the reality is that pushing ourselves in our studies often also means pushing our mental and physical states to their limits. Extended periods of study often demand, or are at least conducive to, late nights, isolation, limited sunlight, limited exercise and poor diets, not to mention the stress of potentially having one’s entire career come down to a 2 hour examination.

Support goes beyond formal services. It includes the informal support offered by professors and staff. One of the promises of a university education is access to leading academics that can provide both intellectual and emotional guidance. But where once the student-staff ratio averaged approximately 1 to 12, it’s now around 1 to 22. And then there are the greater research burdens on lecturers that limit the time they can spend with students – and the quality of that time. While students being assigned a staff member as their ‘tutor’ on arrival would seem to be of value, the burden of obligations felt by staff elsewhere tends to make it a tokenistic arrangement consisting of minor administrative duties at best.

Then there is the informal support offered by peers. Peer networks are invaluable sources of information, emotional support, and belonging. But it’s not always a good thing, as the contagion of obesity has shown. Social networks lead to social norms, and if our networks are engaging in poor lifestyles, fuelled by alcohol and late-night kebabs, we’re probably more likely to do the same – particularly when struggling to make friends and settle into a new environment. And if we don’t manage to fit in, we have social isolation waiting for us, with all of its ill effects. The great range of study and living options, particularly outside of collegiate institutions, are such that we can find ourselves without any particular identifiable group aside from being a member of a 30,000 strong university. For those coming from a small town or school of a few hundred, it can be a bewildering experience.

Many student unions and societies are working to address the lack of support through health promotion, but these are not core structural functions of a university education. They are not standardised for students; they serve a complementary role as fringe additions to the formalities, set up in recognition of university limitations. And the increasing attention shift by student unions away from political issues towards welfare issues shows the true extent of these limitations. For the government, that’s probably quite convenient – students addressing health crises through peer-support means fewer students fighting abuses of power; although, as some students are beginning to recognise, the two are closely related.

No one would be brazen enough to say that universities are ever going to be ideal environments for one’s health. Few would be brazen enough to expect that. But if our hospitals are places to reduce poor health, is it too much of a stretch to suggest that our universities ought to be places that protect good health?

‘Student mental health not our responsibility’, says British government

In response to a letter enquiring into how the government is ensuring that students receive adequate support, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills advised that the responsibility for determining student support rests with educational institutions.

The department’s response, received by email on July 18th, stated: “HEIs are autonomous bodies, independent from the Government.  They have legal responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 to support disabled students in higher education, including those with mental health conditions but it is for the HEIs themselves to determine what welfare and counselling services they need to provide to their students to offer that support.”

The letter had been sent to David Willetts, minister for universities and science, and called on the government to provide funding for a national body to monitor student support and advise institutions, in light of the recent increase in student suicides, and an NUS survey earlier this year. The department replied, “Whilst we have noted and appreciate your suggestion, this is not something we can consider at the present time.”

The response also noted that, despite the independence of HEI’s, the government was providing a “comprehensive package of financial support to ensure that Higher Education (HE) students with disabilities, including those with mental health problems, receive the best possible support”. According to the department, this amounted to £109.2m being allocated to English students claiming Disabled Students Allowance in (2010/2011), and £13m to HEIs (2011/2012).

The total amount allocated in 2011/2012 by HEFCE to FE & HE institutions was £6507m.

‘Employability, employability, employability’

In a 2001 speech, Tony Blair famously underlined his aim of getting more young people through higher education by listing his top three priorities for government as, “education, education, education”. Twelve years later, and with the recession having taken its toll on the ‘widening access’ agenda, political priorities for young people seem to be shifting.

The UK government has long sold the value of a university education on the evidence that graduates get paid more than non-graduates, but the figures have been criticised for being skewed by a small percentage of graduates that are on disproportionately high salaries.

It could also be argued that graduate salaries are higher due to factors outside of university; for instance, graduates may be more likely than non-graduates to have access to financial and professional support through their parents – something that can be particularly useful for breaking into certain industries, such as the media. The British public seems to agree that social status can be a key factor, with a recent poll indicating that almost two-thirds believe that ‘who you know’ matters more than ‘what you know’. 

Skepticism about graduate salary statistics, coupled with a rise in graduate unemployment, has driven the issue of employability into public consciousness, and, since 2007, Google searches for ’employability’ in the UK have doubled. There have been inevitable calls for more jobs to be created, but there has also been a growing argument – spurred by comments from recruiters – that educational institutions and their students need to focus on cultivating ‘soft skills’ such as those involving communication, teamwork, and assertiveness.

Last week, a Guardian live chat explored the ways in which the higher education sector is responding. According to the Work Foundation, the demand for soft skills is being ramped up by the shift towards a ‘knowledge-based’ economy. To address this, universities are increasingly looking to strengthen ties with businesses to create internship opportunities, promoting extra-curricular activities, and offering soft skills training and resources.

Entrepreneurship also continues to gain support within institutions, with recognition that, regardless of whether businesses are actually built, enterprise skills such as assertiveness and leadership are valuable to employers.

But as the employability agenda grows, there are some tensions. Whilst an emphasis on employability might benefit job prospects, there are concerns that the ‘corporatisation‘ of higher education will squeeze students down narrow career paths and detract from the pursuit of knowledge and personal development for its own sake.

Objections seem to be fading though, with Ferdinand von Prondzynski, Vice Chancellor for Robert Gordon University, recently writing on his blog that, “‘Knowledge for its own sake’ is no better as a pedagogical statement than ‘spinach for its own sake’ would be as a nutritional one”.

University students to undergo psychological evaluation

According to the online news website Colombo Page, new students in Sri Lanka may soon be subjected to psychological evaluation. Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and the measure is thought to be being considered as a way of addressing mental health issues fuelled by increasing academic pressures.

Earlier today, Australian newspaper, The Age, reported on plans to introduce compulsive psychological testing at Australian university, RMIT. According to the report, the tests would form part of a ‘Fitness for Study Panel’ that would evaluate the health of students, and identify whether any students with health conditions were likely to display “behaviour of ‘serious risk’ to the student or others”.

Compulsory psychological evaluations are controversial. Proponents claim that it would help distressed students to receive proper treatment, but there are concerns that such tests undermines civil liberties, and could be used to discriminate unfairly.


USA students donate $50,000 to wellbeing services

Graduating students at the University of Washington have pledged $50,000 to their university’s mental health services in recognition of the pressures affecting students. The donation is part of a tradition in the United States in which leaving students offer their university a ‘senior class gift’.

The donation is the university’s largest ever senior gift, according to The Seattle Times. The money will go to the Student Counseling Center, and be used to develop mental health awareness campaigns and educational materials to help students look after themselves.

In a USA survey of more than 28,000 university students, half reported “overwhelming anxiety” and almost a third reported having experienced depression. Earlier this year, USA Today reported that roughly 2.2 million students had accessed counselling services during 2012, and that services have become increasingly stretched.