pastoral care
Are universities lacking in pastoral care services? Source: Shutterstock

Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a horrific tragedy to spur change and shed light on a problem that has existed for a long time.

The recent tragedy of 19-year-old student Mason Pendrous, who was found dead in his resident hall room at the University of Canterbury after his disappearance went unnoticed for four to eight weeks is causing universities to reassess their pastoral care services, though investigations in this case are ongoing.

Student accommodation is a lucrative industry – with both universities and private providers offering state-of-the-art facilities, trendy interior design, and fully-furnished luxurious rooms at high rental costs.

But what about pastoral care? Are students being adequately looked after while living in campus residence halls, or are they merely perceived as tenants?

Pastoral care and mental health issues

Several universities have been offering more services for students with mental health issues in recent years, such as counselling, mentoring and even animal therapy.

According to The Guardian, “Most universities now have counselling services, alongside mental health and well-being advisers, many of whom are specialised in supporting students through the transition from school to university. Students’ unions are also on hand to help with basic life advice, from accommodation support to cooking advice and signposting university facilities.”

This is due to the fact that more and more young people suffer from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

According to Stuff, “Universities have noticed a sustained increase in the number of students reporting mental distress, as have high school guidance counsellors, who have struggled with mounting case loads as more students with increasingly acute problems seek help.

“Provisional figures released by the coroner show 37 students died by suicide in 2007-08. In 2018-19, the number increased to 71. As well as university and polytechnic students, the coroner’s office also includes anyone at primary, intermediate and secondary schools in the student category.”

However, not all students seek help. There are many who are unable to identify whether they even have a problem, or have the right support system to urge them to visit the counselling centre or see a doctor.

This is where pastoral care in residence halls come in – if a student is depressed and unable to leave their room, if they’re sleeping too much and missing classes, or even if they’re showing signs of hoarding or obsessive-compulsiveness; all these things could be considered red flags that could save their life later on.

That’s why universities should extend counselling and psychiatric help to residence halls as well. Dorm room checks should also include red flags to look out for – such as alcoholism, drug abuse, signs of depression, hoarding, etc.

The burden of RAs

Resident advisors are given the job of “looking after” students in the residence halls in exchange for accommodation. This means they often come under fire when something happens in the dorms.

They are usually responsible for making sure everyone is safe, keeping to the dorm rules and organising social activities.

But these RAs are students themselves, and offering pastoral care to students they’re supposed to be responsible for could be an enormous burden to bear.

They may have their own mental health issues to deal with, as well as their own studies and social activities keeping them busy.

Looking after several students at a time can be overwhelming and strenuous for such young students. At the Sonoda facility where Pendrous stayed, the RA to student ratio was reportedly 1 to 54.

There should be more specialised training for RAs to help them identify potential problems with students to help lift the burden and give them more direction in being a mentor to students who live in dorms.

There should also be a more stringent process for hiring RAs instead of choosing those who “fit the profile” or are seen as more people-friendly than others.

What about those who live off-campus?

When a student goes to university, parents are under the impression that the university will keep an eye on their child – or at least notice if he doesn’t show up for class for several weeks in a row.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd, especially in universities with large student populations. For international students and those who live off-campus, the challenge is even greater.

Should pastoral care also be offered to those who don’t live in dorms? Although the university isn’t technically responsible for these students, it could make all the difference if they have mandatory check-ins or are required to see a counsellor every so often to check if they’re doing alright.

All students are typically given academic advising, but as the university experience extends far beyond academics, there should be well-being advisory services or something similar to ensure there’s a support system in place to look out for red flags.

New technologies that arise, such as predictive analytics, could also be indicators to students’ well-being.

Since it can be used to “track” student progress, technology can identify when a student’s performance has dropped, which could be a sign that they’re suffering from a mental health issue, or even a debilitating physical health issue.

Universities must use the tragedy of Mason Pendrous to offer better pastoral care services to students,  domestic or international.

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