November 19, 2014 Nick Preston

Mental health counselling for students in Riga Stradinš University

Intervention in Riga Stradiņš University aimed to ensure the mental health of students by offering counselling in local Psychosomatic Clinic. One of the initiative’s objectives was to challenge the negative perception within student body and society about mental health issues and offered help to prevent it.

Objectives of the Intervention

The main objective of the project was to provide affordable mental health counselling opportunities to the students of Riga Stradiņš University. This counselling was not targeted to deal with serious mental disorders, but much more to deal with psychological phenomena like stress and examination fears. There was no intention to push students to go to counselling. Much more it provided a chance for students to feel free to get affordable help if it is needed. Next to the counselling opportunity another objective was to break down the stereotype amongst students about mental health counselling. The most popular perception within Latvian society is that mental health counselling as a tool of getting help or advice is something embarrassing and a person should only seek it if s/he has serious problems. However, mental health counselling is not perceived as a tool for prevention of further problems. The program is open to all students of Riga Stradiņš University, in total around 7,000 students, including international students.

This program was unique in Latvian higher education and was solely targeted to improve the mental health condition of students.

Origins and rationale of this initiative

The idea was initiated by the Students’ Service of Riga Stradiņš University and widely supported by the Student Council of Riga Stradiņš University and the entire student body. Student services of higher education institutions in Latvia do not provide any mental health counselling at all. Also other medical help is often not available. However taking into consideration high level of stress during the studying process especially during exam sessions, it is crucial to provide decent counselling opportunities.

To solve particular problems, like the lack of mental health counselling opportunities for students, is not a priority for the Latvian government at the moment. This means that currently universities do not receive any financial support to provide this service. While at the same time the universities are not willing to raise fees to be able to afford such services.

As the program was needs based, there was no particular theoretical framework used to build it.

Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

The program took place in one particular university and the target group was the student population of it. There are currently around 7,000 students enrolled at Riga Stradiņš University. The counselling opportunity was offered to all students no matter what their country of origin, gender, race, socio-economic status background, gender, disability, sexual orientation etc. Around 1,000 students of the overall student population are international students. This group was associated with the strongest need for counselling, as they have to cope with a different living environment and issues of integration. However there was no specific approach to any sub-population of the student body.

Students were provided with the opportunity of mental health counselling at the Psychosomatic Clinic of Riga Stradiņš University for a fee of approximately 5 euros. For usual patients this services cost more than 30 euros.

Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

The project had support from university authorities, which was a pre-condition as the authorities also provided the funding. In addition, student council supported it with spreading information via their networks.

Although the program fits with national policies and guidelines on the mental health of youth there was no support from the national level. Universities are responsible for the health conditions of their students, but often do not put a high priority on it.

The program was, according to informal feedback from students and the use of the opportunity, successful. However, after two years the services could no longer be offered. This was due to budget cuts faced by the university.

Students still have the opportunity to go and get counselling at the Psychosomatic Clinic. However students have to pay the regular price and most of the students cannot afford this. This means that although the amount of counselling requests have dropped, although the need for counselling is still there.

Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

Before the program was designed and started, the student services assessed the demand for mental health counselling among the students via a questionnaire. The main result was that students would use the service if it was affordable.

The university contacted the Psychosomatic Clinic and arranged that students by showing the student ID card could get the service for a reduced fee. The university allocated money for the counselling service, so that the reduced fee could be offered.

After the implementation of a reduced counselling fee the next step was a campaign to inform about mental health and offer the possibility to go to counselling. The Student Council and International Student Association were helping to reach out to students and explained what the procedure looked like. One of the key strategic points of informing students was to break the negative stereotypes about mental health services and that it is not embarrassing to ask for mental health counselling.

The success of the program can be seen from the actual attendance rate. Each year more than 20% of the overall student population used the opportunity for mental health counselling. There were no other measurements in place to evaluate this program, to ensure anonymity and protection of the clients. However, the informal feedback provided by the students was positive.

Describe if the project ensured its sustainability

The main problem with ensuring the sustainability was its financial component. Although the program was successful and frequently used by the students the program was stopped as soon as budget cuts came into place.

However, the demand for this program still exists and all participating stakeholders, namely the student services, the Psychosomatic Clinic and the Student Council, would like to re-implement the program as soon as possible. The Student Council is currently evaluating if they can provide the needed money to ensure that the program can be re-introduced.

It is not known to the involved stakeholders whether this project has been replicated. However, similar opportunities and services exist all over Europe.

Resources used in the initiative

The budget was provided by the university as part of the student services budget. The counselling of each student was subsidized with 25.00€ to cover the expenses of using the specialists of the Psychosomatic Clinic of Riga Stradiņš University.

Student Services were providing the administrative work and their people were paid their monthly salaries as usual. There was not much administrative work needed as the largest part of the administration needed to be done before the project was actually kicked off.

The Student Council contributed to the program by spreading information on the basis of volunteers. Because of the high value placed upon societal health within the university and the positive informal feedback from students, the costs were perceived as a good investment. Although the program and its costs were seen in a positive light, it was one of the first things to be cut from the budget when a cost reduction was needed.

Did the intervention reach its objectives?

During the life span of the program it was used by more than 20% of the student population, so this can clearly identified as a success. However, there is no evidence of how helpful the counselling was for solving the presented mental health problems. An evaluation of the client data was not possible because of restrictions regarding client information. Furthermore, from the number of students using the opportunity of mental health counselling it has also been interpreted that the negative perception of mental health support was changed. As the two identified targets were offering mental health counselling and to work on the perception of this the targets were achieved.

There was no further measurement beyond the participation rate.

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Comment (1)

  1. Hello,
    I am an associate professor of Psychological Counseling at Hacettepe University, Ankara, Turkey. My team and I (at Hacettepe University Psychological Counseling Centers) plan to apply for an EU Project (Erasmus+ Key Action2) involving exchange of ideas/practices among universities on preventive mental health services for university students (particularly suicide prevention). As you may know, the EU projects require involvement of multiple partners (at least 3).. Therefore, I wanted to first ask your department would be willing to partake in the Project…
    The purpose of the Project we are planning is to have exchange of ideas and practices regarding preventive mental health services and prevention of suicide among university students. It is my idea that unlike American higher educational institutions, there is a lack of systematic programs/effort on European University campuses toward preventive mental health services for university students. Therefore, as Hacettepe University Counseling Centers, we would like to have partners with whom we can share ideas and therefore enrich our efforts for student mental health services. Although our main focus is on suicide prevention of university students, such effort will inevitably involve preventive mental health beyond suicide.
    The Project will basically involve mutual visits of partners to exchange ideas on best practices. Of course, in the coming years I would wish to take this work further and eventually create a broader partnership among mental health providers on European university campuses.
    Have a wonderful week..

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