The Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on all students, but arguably, the most affected have been the freshers. Living in isolation and being unable to build proper friendships and enjoy welcome events, some express great dissatisfaction, while specialists are getting concerned over poor mental health. Deputy editor Virjinia Vassileva speaks with Professor Robert Batt, Founder and Clinical Director of The Recovery Centre (TRC), on the topic. He further presents the organisation’s newest initiative Fresher’s Chats that seeks to assist freshers to accommodate better to the current circumstances.
“A few decades ago there was a terrific fear of having mental ill-health,” says Batt, highlighting the need to distinguish between mental health and mental ill-health. By mental health, he means people’s state of mind, whereas the term mental ill-health refers to mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, anorexia and others. Batt suggests that due to the lack of differentiation between the two, people were less likely to discuss their mental health, as they tended to equalise it with mental ill-health and “craziness”. Fortunately, in his opinion this has recently changed and keeps changing.
Going back to mental ill-health, he shares that: “Rather than waiting until they need to be hospitalised with an eating disorder or severe depression, there is a new awareness and less shame about mental ill-health. This means that parents particularly are less full of shame about their children being unwell. And that means we can intervene earlier, we can get them back on track much sooner and the level of intervention is much less.”
However, he mentions that most people still seek assistance after getting to what he refers to as “minus something” level, meaning they have already started going downhill. He says that “if the phone rings 20 times a day, every single call is from someone who is already at minus something. We do not normally hear: ‘I am okay, but I want to learn how to become even better. I want to learn how to flourish.'” And this is what concerns him and his team the most. Their goal is to popularise the idea of reflecting on your mental health and constantly improving it, which would reduce the chances of “going downhill”.
Batt created the TRC 15 years ago because of a lack of provisions for younger people. He says: “In those days psychotherapy was really aimed at adults or babies. Young people between the age of 15-25 were sadly neglected. There was very little focus on their needs and their circumstances. I set it up just to look after the mental health of young people.
“We have a big clinic in London, one in Edinburgh, and one currently opening in Riyadh. We have plenty of clients in the Middle East, as there is very little provision there. The psychiatric provision in Riyadh was described to me by one of our patients as: ‘3 men with beards, all of who knew my dad’. This speaks of very little confidentiality and adaptation to the needs of the client. Specialists there are working with a prescribed program as opposed to what we are doing. We are asking ‘What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve?’ We are trying to help people to achieve their specific goals.”
The organisation provides many services to people that are concerned with mental ill-health, such as day programmes, integrative psychotherapy, arts psychotherapy, mindfulness, yoga & meditation and others. However, as Batt states multiple times during the interview, the team’s main goal is “to stop people from going to -2, -3, -4 by providing interventions from the positive side”.
“Let’s improve their mental health rather than treat their mental ill-health,” he says, which is the main idea of TRC’s new initiative Freshers’ Chats.
Batt says their team started focusing on freshers because of a “heartbreaking” past experience with a girl who was recovering from anorexia. He shares that: “Some of our student patients are heading towards mental ill-health partly because of the Covid restrictions. In our clinic in Edinburgh we had a couple of such cases. Students were coming to our clinic saying: ‘I do not know anyone. I am coming to halls and am asked to stay in my room.’ One of them was recovering from anorexia. She was going down to eat in isolation from everyone else and then was going back to her room. She would come and talk to our team, and we were horrified and heartbroken at what was happening to her and to them. We wanted to do something about it, so a team of what are about 30 people now offered to give their time for free to provide support groups for freshers.”
The idea behind such groups is to create a safe space for freshers to communicate with one another and realise that they are not alone. The team normally gathers once per week and consists of two facilitators and around 10 students. The facilitators encourage the students to share their thoughts and feelings and engage in fruitful discussions. Batt says: “Usually 9 out of 10 say that they are feeling the same. They claim to feel lonely and like they are the only one without friends. They hear people in halls having fun while they are staying there alone, feeling frustrated and angry. It is so much better to be talking about that, to know you are not alone and that other people also have that experience. It is incredibly cathartic to do so. In a way, what we are saying is: ‘come and have a rant’. It may help you feel better and will probably making you feel less lonely.”
Batt further says that most of the students start hanging out together after the meetings. They get to know each other and spend more time together. The facilitators keep inviting them to these meetings until the group is so well-established that the students no longer require the help of another party to facilitate communication. He says: “The main goal of Fresher’s Chat is to help students generate a supportive community.
“We are doing something that universities could be doing. We have gained massive support from parents and students, but I think the universities are feeling somewhat threatened by our support.”
Batt claims that while parents and students seem to be satisfied and thankful, universities are not very willing to accept the help the organisation is providing. According to him, most universities need additional help with the matter, but do not want to admit it. He makes it clear that there is a distinction between what the counselors at universities typically do and what his organisation is focusing on. He uses the University of Cambridge, where he is currently situated, as an example, indicating two main points:
“At Cambridge we have about 24,000 students. We have a counselling team of 15 people, out of which only 2 are working full-time. What provision is there for students? And Cambridge is supposed to have the best counselling, the gold standard in the UK.
“Secondly, we have to look at what it is that they are offering. They are offering support for psychological disorders, while what we are doing at the Recovery Centre is to prevent psychological disorders. We should distinguish between these services. What the universities are doing is to provide for the people who already have diagnosis, some form of a psychological issue. What we are doing is much more preventative. We are also trying to create a community. I am not sure how much of a community the universities themselves are creating, but certainly the counselling departments that we have come across, are not generating any positive space for people. They are just treating ill patients.”
He then suggests universities should consider accepting external help like theirs, especially since they are providing it for free. He then returns back to the topic of freshers stating they are at a “uniquely dangerous place right now”, as they have just left their bubble (in the emotional sense).
“Freshers are in a uniquely vulnerable position, as many of them are going to a strange city, even strange countries, with very little resources in terms of the ecosystem around them. They not only arrive vulnerable, but then the facilities that were originally there to enable them to form some friendships have now been taken away. No freshers’, no societies, no lectures. I think this is harming young people’s spirit. Because not only are they becoming more isolated, not only are they becoming more frustrated and angry, but there is also a distorted reality. While universities are claiming they are doing everything to help, for students it seems like they are doing nothing to help.
“I am struck that the universities are not bringing us up and saying ‘come and help our students’. I am very surprised they are not asking for support or services that would provide more satisfaction and less drop outs. Because what is heartbreaking is the idea of freshers dropping out of university in their first term because they have not been given the opportunity of starting.”
Regardless, he feels optimistic that students and people in general would start paying more attention to their minds and the amount of services in the area would increase.
“Email any enquiries at email@example.com and we will provide you with some support for free, despite what your university says. There is help available, persevere and you will receive it,” he concludes.
You can find their contact details here.
Professor Robert Batt holds a Masters Degree in Addiction Psychology and has been practicing for 2 decades. He has studied Positive Psychology with Dr Tal Ben-Shahar (Positive Psychology lecturer at Harvard) and Philosophy with Dr Phil Joice at Oxford University. He is a current Postgraduate student at Darwin College, Cambridge.