The American University in Cairo has launched an initiative that aims to improve its psychological support services and promote the mental health and well-being of everyone on its campus.
Campus leaders described the effort as a response to rising pressures on students and faculty members alike, and the increased prevalence of anxiety and depression that is being seen worldwide in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ahmad Dallal, the university’s president, told Al-Fanar Media that mental health and emotional well-being are increasingly becoming a top priority for universities.
“The university has mechanisms to support the mental health of our community of faculty members and students, but much more must be done,” he wrote in an email.
Support Centers on Campus
Through its Center for Student Well-Being, the university offers support services to help students deal with both mental health problems and academic performance issues.
“The university has mechanisms to support the mental health of our community of faculty members and students, but much more must be done.”Ahmad Dallal President of the American University in Cairo
It also offers support to faculty members and employees through its Psychological Counseling Services and Training Center, which provides therapy and assessment services, as well as training for students seeking Master’s in Counseling degrees.
So far, the initiative is a campus-level project, with no specific plans for coordinating with Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education to generalise it to public universities.
“We are trying to learn from the work done by the relevant ministries,” Dallal said. “If the work we are doing is useful, we are ready to participate with the ministry and partner universities.”
The initiative will enter into force next year, after a team selected by the university completes its work. The team will assess the current campus environment and make recommendations on matters like how to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, raise public awareness of mental health, and promote the mental health and well-being of all community members.
A Space for Talking Freely
Hania Sholkamy, a professor in AUC’s Social Research Center, is a member of the team that will work on making recommendations on how to establish the new support system.
“The change we have experienced in our life, in recent years, has increased psychological pressure,” she told Al-Fanar Media. “We have become more vulnerable to stress-related accidents and disorders.”
Technology is one added stressor, she said. “The heavy exposure to social media and the public space has a great impact on our psyche, regardless of our social or physical background.”
Sholkamy led a workshop on campus this month to gather students’ and teachers’ views on providing a platform where members of the university community could exchange experiences and ideas on improving mental health, on campus and outside.
“The change we have experienced in our life, in recent years, has increased psychological pressure. We have become more vulnerable to stress-related accidents and disorders.”Hania Sholkamy A professor in the AUC’s Social Research Center
Students could share personal problems on the platform and get advice as well. This could be a space to “reveal,” she said.
The psychological burden of stress has become a collective issue, affecting both students and teachers, Sholkamy said. She cited increased levels of symptoms of such psychological burdens, including tension, anxiety, and distraction due to daily pressures.
The university realised that ignoring this matter would make the consequences worse, reflecting on academic performance and possibly turning into mental illness, she said.
A Three-Prong Approach
The initiative will work on three fronts:
- changing the university’s culture on mental health through campaigns designed to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness;
- enhancing the level of mental health services on campus; and
- improving policies, protocols and training related to mental health.
Sholkamy that the campaign should be multi-faceted to cover psychological, sports, sexual, and emotional aspects of well-being.
It will also need to address issues like public awareness of mental health, patients’ confidentiality, the privacy of mental health information, the waiting list to get the services, and the stigma associated with mental illness.
The campaign is an attempt to create an environment conducive to mental health across the campus, she said. It makes an “important shift” from dealing with psychological stress as a matter of individual cases to designing a good mental health environment that protects and meets the needs of everyone.
Taking Diversity Into Account
Several students agreed on the importance of promoting mental health on campus, given the pressures students face, which can lead to feelings such as anxiety and confusion, and affect their ability to concentrate.
Some students also said the initiative should accommodate their diverse backgrounds.
Khaled Yousif, a business administration student, told Al-Fanar Media that there is an urgent need for programmes that support both psychological health and academic achievement.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Programmes aimed at supporting mental health and well-being should protect the confidentiality of those seeking help and should be provided in a way consistent with students’ culture, Yousif said.
Language is usually a “big” obstacle to communication between students and mental health care providers, he said. “The initiative must also understand the disparities in the students’ social and economic backgrounds,” he added.
- Mental-Health Care on Arab Campuses is Increasing—Slowly
- Student’s Suicide Highlights Lack of Mental-Health Services in Yemeni Universities
- Lebanese University Researchers Zero In on Students’ Stress and Depression
- Iraqi Universities’ Psychological Support Units Struggle to Meet Needs
- Suicide Risk on Gaza Campuses Is Growing, Studies Suggest