This blog post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with staff from different services at the University of Manchester, introducing you to who they are, what they do, and how they can help you get the most out of your time at university! In this interview, the Library Student Team talks to Omar from the Counselling Service about the workshops, one-to-one sessions and online resources they have to offer.
Kit: How does someone access the University’s Counselling Service? There are lots of options on the website.
Omar: If you go to the website, you can click ‘Book an Appointment’ and do the questionnaire. This procedure helps us to give you the appropriate type of counselling and appointment you might need. We’ve also just introduced 30 minute ‘Information and Advice Sessions’ for people who need quick answers. These appointments are released every day and you can get one by phoning us between 9am and 10am, on 01612 752864. There’s no waiting list, and you can find out about our workshops programme and self-help resources. Our busiest times are the end of October and November, and throughout January. We close for a week over Christmas, but we’re open over summer – this is also our quietest time.
Kit: And what about international students, or students on placement? How about distance-learners or students currently studying abroad?
Omar: We see a lot of international students, and we’ve actually got a programme in collaboration with the International Society and International Wellbeing Support, where counsellors who have a specialist interest in this area are able to offer advice. We see anyone who’s registered as a student, including anyone currently overseas. We offer sessions using Zoom, a secure video-conferencing software, for students who are away from campus; just contact us to ask for more details.
Kit: So what kinds of issues do students access the Counselling Service to get help with?
Omar: Everything under the sun! The most common things, in the general population as well, are anxiety and depression. Other things too, such as relationship breakdown, addiction, bereavement, abusive relationships, self-esteem, performance anxiety, worry, eating disorders, and social anxiety. We have support groups for some of these, too. There’s a tremendous pressure on students to enjoy their university experience in a particular way, and it’s not one size fits all. Social anxiety is a big problem, but we’ve got really good groups, workshops and ways of helping students, so I’d really encourage them to make use of these resources, because dealing with social anxiety while you’re still at university is the best thing you can do.
Kit: We’re also wondering whether someone can specifically request to see a female or a male counsellor?
Omar: Absolutely! Even more than that, if you’d like to change counsellor, we encourage people to be upfront and say so – the relationship with your counsellor is very important.
Kit: And does the Counselling Service refer out to other services?
Omar: Yes. We don’t formally diagnose conditions, but we have a visiting psychiatrist, and we refer on if necessary. When you come to see the Counselling Service, the agreement explains that everything is confidential except in certain, specific circumstances, including when there’s a risk of harm to yourself or anybody else. Of course, your GP has primary responsibility for your healthcare, so we can talk to doctors and the NHS Mental Health Services, with your consent, and sometimes clients ask us to talk to the University’s Disability Advisory and Support Service (DASS). For mitigating circumstances, schools advise that medical evidence should be provided, so we can’t really do that. Even if we do need to refer you on to other services, though, we’ll still keep in touch.
Kit: Could you tell us a little bit about the workshops you run? Which ones are the most popular?
Omar: Well, during term time we hold mindfulness and relaxation sessions every day, in the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons and the Wellbeing Rooms in the Simon Building. They’re supportive environments, and there’s always a benefit to doing these kinds of activities in a group. ‘Managing procrastination’, ‘Making the most of your mind’ and ‘Managing exam stress are always popular workshops. Students can also benefit from coming to ‘Managing anxiety and panic’ (in the Resource Room in the Simon Building) and ‘Challenging unhelpful thinking habits’ (in the Learning Commons Training Room -104).
Kit: And how do the online resources on the website work?
Omar: Silvercloud is an online resource with four programmes: anxious thoughts and feelings; depression and low mood; stress; and body image. There are also relaxation mp3 downloads, and procrastination e-resources, which anyone can access. I’d recommend them as a first attempt to deal with something, but if you find you’re still having difficulties, come to see us!
Kit: So do you have any hints or tips for managing exam stress, or handling things like procrastination?
Omar: Well, there’s a workshop I facilitate called ‘Making the most of your mind: how to revise and study more effectively,’ about learning how to learn, which runs through a lot of healthy study habits and explains why they are effective. If you think about stress as the gap between demands on you and your ability to meet them, you need ways of addressing that. So, rather than hitting a block and letting that self-critical voice kick-in, we need to take a step back and work out whether there is a knowledge gap to fill, or whether we need to do some breathing and relaxation routines to help us calm down. Accepting stress as a normal part of life which adds edge to your performance is the first step. I also run a workshop called ‘Managing procrastination,’ and there’s a great video I recommend. Doing something creative, encouraging your mind to generate ideas, might feel like you’re doing nothing, but it’s actually very constructive – to a point! The way to get started is to work in short bursts, so the Pomodoro technique is a great way of managing your time. This teaches you a new habit, and shows you that you can do it, rather than just perfecting procrastination!
Kit: So how can students tell the difference between normal uni stress or pressure and something which is becoming a bigger problem? How can they know when to ask for help?
Omar: Your behaviour starts to change – mood changes, eating habits, being irritable with others, feelings of hopelessness, problems concentrating, attendance problems and negativity towards your work. These things vary, but they tell you something’s wrong, so if you know things aren’t right, that’s the point at which you should have a look at the website and the workshops!
Kit: We also wondered what someone should do if they’re worried about a friend?
Omar: Well, encourage the friend to talk to us, but don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions. Don’t let there be a taboo – encourage people to talk, be supportive. If it gets too much for you, come and see us yourself, but encourage them to come and see us from the start.
Kit: There’s also a lot on the website about wellbeing. Why is wellbeing so important for students, particularly?
Omar: Well, when you first move to university, it’s a huge change, and you suddenly have to do everything for yourself. The stress of that, plus moving to a new place and not knowing a lot of people, with academic pressure far beyond what you’ve experienced in school – it’s a lot to deal with. We’re trying to encourage students to understand that what they’re experiencing is normal, to look at the coping strategies you have, and how to add to them. Wellbeing is a really good way of thinking about that, and thinking about mental health. People who claim to have good wellbeing tend to be physically active, mentally aware, learning something, giving time to help others, eating healthily and connecting with other people, socially. If you look at somebody who’s depressed, all these things have diminished, so wellbeing is a view that if you can keep these things in your life, you’ll be more able to absorb the stress that comes your way.
Hopefully this interview helped you find out a little bit more about the Counselling Service, the kind of support they offer, and the ways you can get in touch with them!