With university counselling in short supply, what happens when services stop?

Guest Post by Rhiannon Long

One of the most important steps in institutional mental health provision is providing that link between service and user. Bridging the gap, and ensuring you’re connecting the person to the right service, is key. But what happens when mental health services stop? What happens when you’re no longer meeting the requirement threshold, when the service closes down, or money simply runs out? Undergoing mental health treatment can feel like a safety blanket, but what happens when that blanket is pulled out from under your feet?

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a kind of talking therapy, is offered free on the NHS. You can receive anything from five to 20 fortnightly sessions, lasting between 30 minutes and an hour.

The aim of therapies like CBT is to teach you to use the skills you’ve learnt in the sessions and apply them to everyday life. For some people, that’s possible after 20 sessions. For others it might not be. While these aren’t strict limits, and they can vary from person-to-person, there still has to be a point when sessions come to an end.

When it comes to university support services, that deadline looms quickly. Most universities offer around just six sessions of CBT or counselling.

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Photograph from University of East London

John McCarthy, head of student wellbeing at the University of East London, admitted that can be a hindrance.

“I think some of my councillors would like to offer longer term work,” he said.
“But they also know we’re struggling to find room in the service to be able to. We have to acknowledge that the reason we’re here is to support a student’s progression and retention.”

John, who used to work in the NHS as a counselling psychologist, said universities are unique in the kind of mental health provision they provide. While student wellbeing is paramount, ultimately, their role is to keep students on course to finish their studies.

“So many of our students want to have the type of therapy where they discuss their entire lives,” he said.

“Sometimes I have to say, we’re not the NHS, these students had these problems before they came here. Naturally we’ll want to provide for and look after a student who’s had a lifetime of abuse, but if this student doesn’t pass their degree, can you imagine how much more distressed they’re going to be?”

Many of John’s team have worked in the NHS before, and with a multi-disciplinary approach, where they discuss cases and decide on the best approaches, sometimes they have to remind themselves that student support is not an NHS service.

“We recognise it can take ages for people to wait for treatment, and that’s even if they meet the threshold, so there are certain areas where we probably are better than the NHS,” he said.

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Photograph from University of East London

“But we’re not here to replace the NHS. Our wellbeing practitioners are accredited professionals in the field. They’re really good. But we can only offer short-term work in higher education.

“That’s why It’s important to have really good relationships with local NHS services, so we can point students to the right places when they need it.”

John said being able to signpost in the right direction is almost as important as being able to offer services themselves.

“These days, offering university counselling for up to a year is an impossibility, such is the number of students who come to us,” he admitted.

“It’s a volume issue. We are a very small service and always have been, but even in the early days, when we started in 2007, we recognised that we needed to have good NHS links. So I mapped out what was in the area. We’ve had psychotherapists come on site, we have relationships with early intervention and psychosis teams, and we’ve even got a solid partnership with local GP surgery.”

And John said this signposting can be the best way to mitigate the effects of services coming to an end.

“Everyone in an institution has to have a level of mental health awareness, not just the support service,” he said.

“Nowadays, we all have a part to play and a duty of care. We don’t expect anyone to treat, but we should be able to signpost. No one should have to support themselves.”

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