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Universities ‘outsourcing’ mental health services despite record demands from students

‘If students have to get counselling from the NHS, that is a cut’

Many unis are "outsourcing" mental health services to cut costs and waiting times, despite demands from students being at an all time high.

Outsourcing means "obtaining goods or services from an outside supplier", however this is increasingly being used as a method to disguise cutting costs and services from the university itself, with unis referring students straight to the NHS.

Hull, Essex and Wolverhampton Universities are all reportedly fully or partially outsourcing their counselling and mental health services, instead focusing on re-branding these as "well-being" services.

David Mair, former head of counselling at the University of Birmingham said: “You often hear things such as 66 per cent of students say they had a mental health problem in the past year – but this can range from feeling anxious about exams to depression, which makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning.”

There is a clear lack of concern about student mental health at some universities, despite it being a core part of the overall learning experience.

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University of Wolverhampton told us aren't outsourcing their services

According to The Guardian, the University of Wolverhampton stated: “Our core function is as an educational institution and not a specialist mental health service.”

However, a University of Wolverhampton spokesperson told The Tab this comment was not provided by the university and came from a leaked draft consultation document, about the proposed changes.

James Allen, Head of Communications for the University of Hull told us: "we are not outsourcing our provision, and have no plans to.

"The model of support from September 2018 is to re-focus this team towards a prevention, intervention and referral model, providing for greater capacity where this is needed most.

"There will be no reduction in core staffing, hours or investment in supporting the wellbeing of our students."

Another cause for concern is the move away from universities that provide fully qualified members of staff within mental health services, a trend taking place at the University of Essex.

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University of Essex are outsourcing some of their mental health provisions

Although promising to increase mental health provisions by 30 per cent across their Colchester campus, the advertisement does not ask for any specific qualifications related to counselling: "The successful candidate will hold a minimum of two A-Levels or equivalent and will have experience of working with people with mental and emotional health difficulties, as well as experience of student facing delivery in this area."

The University of Essex told The Tab they feel their proposals have been "misrepresented" in other media outlets, and will "require the counsellors to be qualified and accredited".

They added: “Our wellbeing assessors will have appropriate qualifications and experience of working with people with mental and emotional health difficulties" but does not state what qualifications they regard as "appropriate".

They said: “Feedback from our Students’ Union has identified a clear desire for more interventions, a wider range of support and more counselling. Feedback from students with individual needs has also identified a need to make our community more inclusive."

Bryn Morris, Registrar at the University of Essex said: “The restructure will increase significantly the volume of counselling we can offer as well as create roles dedicated to launching new activities and working with academic colleagues in departments to improve inclusivity and support students.”

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The Tab spoke to a former student at the University of Essex who said their experience with mental health services was largely positive "I had a wonderful experience with them. When the local CMHT messed up and discharged me (they shouldn't have and I got taken back under as a matter of urgency), my university rallied round me and helped so much, I owe them my life. They tried so hard with keeping me supported throughout my time there."

Asked what they thought of the proposed plans for Essex's mental health services, they said "If it means they're going to be lessening the input I think it could cause problems, but I know generally there is a lot of support at Essex.

"If it means that people are gonna fall through the net then that's concerning, as I almost did fall through the net and was "caught" by the university so to speak. It worries me that if they have less staff available to treat urgent causes then it might be problematic and could potentially lead to people deferring, dropping out, or even worse.

"I know the step between primary care and secondary care is massive though. That's also worrying, but I think that's an NHS issue, not a university issue, if you get what I mean?"

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Hull has partnered with the local NHS 'Let's Talk' service

Essex isn't the only university restructuring their mental health services.

The University of Hull have also moved their provisions elsewhere: “The university’s wellbeing team, together with Let’s Talk, allows us to provide a more in-depth intervention for those students in need, allowing us to broaden the available support. This partnership has provided more directed and specific help to students who need it.”

In response, the university told The Tab: "The health and wellbeing of our students is a priority. We offer a range of support services to our students, which includes working in partnership with the NHS Let’s Talk service.

"The University’s Wellbeing Team, combined with Let’s Talk, allows the University to provide a more in-depth intervention for those students in need, allowing us to broaden the available support. Our team also offers a daily drop-in service to meet and respond to the needs of students.

"Alongside this service, the University’s Wellbeing Team operates a bookable appointments service. A member of staff is also on duty daily in case a student needs to be seen more urgently."

However, it is not clear as to who the internal support is being offered by, and whether there are any counsellors employed within the University.

Of course, it's not just these three universities that have had issues with internal mental health support. A student from the University of London told us that they had increasingly limited access to support within their time at university.

They told The Tab: "I was told that the Mental Health Adviser can only see me twice a term maximum, whereas I used to see her predecessor at least four times a term, if not more, along with regular emails.

"It's upsetting for me and were I more ill or vulnerable at the moment, I'd take it as a sign of people not caring. But the reality is that the Mental Health Adviser is hugely overstretched at my uni. They need more than one person in that role tbh"

Several unis are cutting internal mental health provisions

Speaking to The Guardian, Head of BACP (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy) and Head of Counselling at Oxford, Alan Percy, warned of the dangers of switching to services focused on "well-being" over mental health and insisted that: "If students have to get counselling from the already overstretched and underfunded NHS services, that is a cut.

"If students are offered telephone or online counselling without the option of a face-to-face meeting with a counsellor, then that is yet another cut."

He added: “We have always supported an institution-wide wellbeing approach to student mental health, but reducing or outsourcing in house, embedded professional counselling services at a time when there is so much concern about student mental health and suicide rates is not only perverse but institutionally irresponsible.”

During the 2016-2017 academic year, there were 95 student deaths recorded as suicides. The rates of suicide among students is higher than those outside education and provisions therefore need to be at the heart of university services, including staff who are professionally trained and experienced to deal with these situations.

Resources such as The Tab's Mental Health Rankings make sure those students in vital need of these services are not being left behind at institutions who are not equipped to deal with them, and to ensure universities are being held accountable for those students in their care.