Male students shun university mental health support

Author: Mark Gould

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A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme has revealed that male students are far less likely to access university counselling and wellbeing services. While some 44% of students in the UK are male, responses to the FOI from 100 universities suggest only 31% of those using the services were male.

Official figures show there were 95 recorded university student suicides in the 12 months to July 2017 in England and Wales, and that more than twice as many male as female students took their own life.

The programme said that many men struggle with the academic pressures of university life but are reluctant to ask for help. The umbrella organisation which represents wellbeing services, the Heads of University Counselling Services, told the programme that it recognises it is an issue. Alan Percy, its former chairman and currently an executive committee member, told the BBC its strategies "just don't seem to be working".

He said: "Often these men wait until they're in a crisis state before we even know they have a problem.

"[But] it's not just the universities failing men with their mental health, society is failing them too."

When Birkbeck, University of London, became the first institution in the UK to assess why this is happening, it says it found worrying results.

While many reported they were struggling with their mental health, they said they felt unable to take the first step in asking for help. Others believed their problems were not serious enough to warrant support. So the university decided to act.

It set up an outreach team which introduce a range of measures to help give men the confidence to come forward - liaising with students at every stage.

A targeted poster campaign was launched, with images of men challenging traditional mindsets. In one, a man looking strong and running cast a shadow in which he looked fearful. Another showed a man being forced to put on a brave face, with pegs attached to his mouth to ensure he smiled. Work was also done to demystify the university's counselling service, by creating a video that showed an example session at every stage, featuring one of its professionals.

"They wanted images of masculinity to be challenged," Jo Myddleton, one of the university's counsellors, told the programme.

"They wanted male role models - men who could talk about mental health and be visible in the university."

Different therapy options are also being looked into, to allow for group therapy sessions and the option of seeking help anonymously online - something some students said would make them more willing to attend counselling.

As a result of this work at Birkbeck, there has been a steady rise in uptake among men of 6%, the outreach team says. And it hopes to build a blueprint other universities and health services can follow.

"One of our aims was that services across the UK can apply [our model] to their own service, and hopefully allow more men to access help in a timely manner," Ms Myddleton, counsellor at Birbeck, said.

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