A few months ago, on a five-hour flight, I was seated next to a lecturer teaching at COMSATS Islamabad. Our conversation soon turned from allaying her aviophobia to the desperate need of student counseling services at her university. She shared examples of the kinds of problems students approach her with, e.g., drugs, trauma due to childhood physical and sexual abuse (which continues to this day in some cases). She said, “A colleague of mine is naturally good at this sort of thing. I am not and, generally, do not even know what to say to these children. I get depressed myself just listening to them.” Like her employer, several other universities have now also put in place informal student counseling programmes.
lhan Niaz, a professor of history, shared that “faculty of QAU’s National Institute of Psychology regularly counsels students, as does faculty of other departments, but solely at their own initiative and not as part of university policy. Back in 2012, after a particularly severe round of student violence, the Dean of the School of Social Sciences appointed me convener of the committee on student discipline. The committee made recommendations, which included providing students with proper counseling facilities, but no action was taken. Over time, many faculty members have asked for this service to be made available to students, especially as the ratio of (full-time) faculty-to-students is declining.
Ayesha Kashif is a lecturer at the College of Social Sciences of a public university and a consulting psychologist at a private clinic in Islamabad. After a few classes, students, followed by fellow faculty members and administrators, began approaching her to discuss their problems. Over the past eight years around 700 students have approached her, most of them facing one kind of personal, psychological, mental health, substance addiction issue or another. Students came to her not because the university officially appointed her student counsellor, but because she lends a willing ear.
Ms. Kashif shared that one of the biggest issues stems from the information blast young people are exposed to today. They have access to all manner of information and are curious, but not everyone is equipped cognitively or emotionally to process it. Girls have approached her to share how explicit sexual images have made them averse to having an intimate relationship in the future. She is approached by boys and girls suffering from trichotillomania — a mental disorder that involves the urge to pull out hair from the scalp, often without realising it. Many do so while using their Internet connected devices. Some girls showed her the makeup they use to cover up this self-inflicted loss of hair.
These students are obviously under a lot of stress, which interferes with their personal and academic lives. Unfortunately, they are unable to talk to their parents about it. She said that this is an issue of lack of communication because often both children and parents seem to be engrossed in their own worlds on their screens and devices and, without realising it, have become very lonely inducing all kinds of anxiety related disorders.
Children who sustained childhood sexual and physical abuse or continue to be victims form a large population of those seeking counselling. The psychologist I spoke with shared that girls seem to be more vulnerable to substance abuse, as they generally have fewer ways to cope with their situation than boys. She has also observed a pattern among students who come to her with substance abuse problem, i.e., most of these young people are getting addicted in their high schools. Based on the sample of students she talked to, most of these young people come from the same 3-4 elite private schools in Islamabad.
Strained relationships between parents or between parents and children are some other issues troubling many young people. Many of them fail or drop out of their academic programmes or, in extreme circumstances, attempt suicide. While some of those affected do exhibit outward signs, a majority of undergoing these problems maintain a facade of normalcy. In just a few years, these youth will enter the workforce, start relationships, and become parents themselves, bringing their baggage with them, impacting their own psychological health as well as the wellbeing of those around them.
In 2012, a student at NUST committed suicide on campus. Although there is no document to establish a causal link, soon thereafter NUST instituted a counselling programme. While the university drove the counselling programme, it did not back it with any material resources. Instead of relying on trained professionals, the administration, in true military fashion, simply divided the students equally among all its faculty members. Needless to say, with the exception of psychology and related departments, none of the faculty members received as much as five minutes of training. Faculty who is already burdened with teaching, research, professional mentoring of grad students, pressure to publish and other institutional duties were now required to regularly meet with around 20 students. In addition to tracking their academic performance, look for slipping academic performance and maintaining profiles on individual students, they were told to look out for signs of suicide and radicalisation.
However, amidst these many local universities reluctantly running under-resourced counselling services, LUMS is a positive example and has been offering student-counselling services by qualified professionals at least since the 1990s. In general though, in Pakistan universities are lagging behind by a few decades.
In developed countries, student counselling has been an essential student service that schools, colleges and universities offer their students for years as a matter of course. Student counselling centres are as much part of colleges and universities there as the registrar’s office. Student counselling is a widely offered graduate school programme that lies at the intersection of education and psychology.
Counselling centres facilitate academic, emotional, social and cognitive development of students to empower them in their learning and personal development. Student counselling services require expertise that often times requires these services to be broken up. For example, at my own grad school, Michigan State University, departments usually had one or two academic counsellors that would guide students on academic matters, e.g., course selection, graduation requirements, etc. For local students the Student Affairs office and for international students the Office of International Students and Scholars helps students deal with matters pertaining to tuition payments, visa issues, etc. For personal problems, these same offices would direct students to trained professionals.
As the many experiences recounted by faculty members amply show, student counselling is an urgent and unmet need in our country. Expecting untrained faculty to shoulder this burden is unreasonable and even negligent, completely ignoring the negative impact it can have on the wellbeing of both faculty and students. Some universities, not distinguishing between professional mentoring and professional student counselling, have now begun to add student counselling into faculty contracts as part of their duties. Colleges and universities are a rather late stage to start providing counselling. Counselling services should start at the school level.
Presently, our public schools are unable to perform even the most basic function of imparting education, something that looks unlikely to change in the near or medium-term future. There is no hope for public schools to start delivering on a secondary function like student counselling. Private schools are being limited in how much tuition fee they can charge, which is resulting in cut-backs in student services and facilities. The budget for higher education is being cut.
In the absence of institutions of education providing much needed counselling services, it remains up to parents to maintain meaningful communication with their children and/or overcome the stigma associated with seeking counselling services and mental health help. Failing that, society is leaving young people to their own devices.