Birkbeck Helping More Men to Access Counselling

Men are significantly less likely to seek counselling for mental health problems. The Birkbeck Student Counselling Outreach Project aims to change this.

A new initiative at Birkbeck aims to reach out to groups which are traditionally less likely to seek mental health support – such as men, refugees and care leavers – to access Birkbeck’s counselling service.

The Birkbeck Student Counselling Outreach Project, an initiative supported by the UPP Foundation, is running over a two-year period and is being coordinated by Paul Mollitt, Widening Participation Student Counsellor at Birkbeck. This project is the first of its kind in the Higher Education sector.

It aims to understand and overcome the barriers that prevent men, forced migrants and care leavers from accessing counselling as these groups are significantly less likely to seek support. The initial focus of the project is on men, as the group which is largest and easiest to identify.

Mollitt explained: “Research shows that men are far more likely to go undiagnosed and are far less likely to seek help than women, which may help to understand why 3 out of 4 people who commit suicide are men. While women often present with traditional symptoms of anxiety and depression, men tend to present with pain or other somatic or psycho-somatic symptoms that can mask an emotional cause.

“In addition, there is evidence of a gender bias where women are diagnosed with anxiety or depression far more often than men, despite similar scores on the standardised measures widely used in diagnosing mental health conditions. Men are more likely to act out their anger and distress than seek help and are more likely to have alexithymia: an inability to express oneself emotionally and a fear of intimacy in close relationships.”

An initial survey has found that not enough male students are accessing the counselling services on offer at Birkbeck, so a focus group has been set up to further explore the barriers to counselling, and the types of help preferred to ensure greater support going forward.

Mollitt continued: “Encouragingly, 85% of men who responded to our survey said that they would consider using the college counselling service if they were experiencing difficulties. For those who would not come to us for help, reasons included:  ‘Being male, I feel looked down upon if I admit to having a problem like that’, ‘nobody cares how men feel – the bills need paying’ and, ‘I don’t like the idea of having my issues known to others’. These comments confirm previous research that shows men are reluctant to seek help because they think they should be able to deal with their problems alone.”

Birkbeck’s Counselling Service Manager, Charlotte Williams, who is overseeing the project said: “Birkbeck College counselling service has been in existence for 6 years and as a result of identifying that men, care-leavers and refugees were under-represented amongst those accessing counselling services, I sought to compare this with other services. Although this seemed to be the norm across the sector, Birkbeck prides itself on increasing accessibility to students and therefore the counselling service was keen to uphold this ethos and carry out some research into the barriers and overcome them rather than accepting them”.

Richard Brabner, Head of the UPP Foundation, has spoken of his enthusiasm for the initiative saying: “Student groups such as those identified by Birkbeck, less likely to access counselling at university, have a higher rate of common and potentially preventable struggles during study not being addressed. This project is therefore vital. We believe this scheme will have a profound impact, not just on Birkbeck, but on the wider higher education community too as the lessons from the project are embedded across the sector.”

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