‘It made me feel worse’: Inside the struggle for mental health support at Manchester Uni
Every student who needs help has to call at the same time and hope somebody answers
Every day at 11am, hundreds of Manchester students pick up their phones and dial the same number. Sitting in his Oak House room, George Thompson was one of them. He tried calling four times, with no answer. On the fifth, he got through.
Across campus, in the flat she shares with her partner, Jess was trying too. Her first attempt, over a week before, had been fruitless. “I called them five times in a row, and it kept sending me to a voicemail saying ‘don’t leave a message’,” she says.
Jess then had to wait a week until she found two free afternoons. She’d called the day before, to no avail. Finally, on her third day of psyching herself up and calling, someone picked up the phone.
This is the only way to get a counselling session at Manchester – a 90 minute window from 11-12:30, where everyone who needs help calls up and hopes for an answer.
It’s a scene more reminiscent of uni clearing or the scramble for Glastonbury tickets. “You put in the effort and then you get shot down,” says Jess. “You feel pressured”, says George.
Manchester is a uni that looks to the whole country like it’s in crisis.
Students tore down a fence that was erected around their halls with no notice. Rent strikers are withholding over £300,00 in rent from the uni and occupying a tower block. Security guards have been suspended for allegedly racially profiling a student. There are calls for the Vice Chancellor, Dame Nancy Rothwell, to resign. “Paid, blamed, caged” has become a slogan for the anger to coalesce around.
And any Manchester student you speak to expresses sorrow over the death of Finn Kitson, a fresher who passed away in halls at the start of term. There’s a mental health crisis playing out. At the heart of it, students like George and Jess are struggling and trying to get help. Not only are they finding that help hard to access, but that it can even make things worse.
The Tab’s You Matter campaign is reporting on the student mental health crisis this term.
Read about how uni confessions page admins are witnessing a side of the crisis that most people can’t see.
George Thompson is a fresher living in Manchester’s notoriously grotty Oak House halls. He’s been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and “since being at uni I’d really started feeling depressed,” he told The Tab.
He was excited to start his management, leadership and leisure degree and had been promised some blended learning. But when he turned up, he found out everything was online: “I’m in my tiny Oak House room, studying, and it’s just impossible. There’s no structure.”
Struggling, he reached out to the uni’s counselling services. He found the narrow window to call up put pressure on him. “When I’m really depressed I don’t really want to get out of bed, but I’ve got to ring at this exact hour window or I’m just not getting anywhere,” he said.
Still, he tried five times, got through and was offered an appointment the next day. On the phone, the counsellor only seemed to want to talk about his academic issues – when George tried to shift the conversation to his anxiety, he found he was getting nowhere.
“At the end of the appointment, the lady said, ‘have you been having any suicidal thoughts or any plans to kill yourself?’ And at the time I wasn’t so I said no. And then she said ‘okay well there won’t be a follow up, but if you would like another appointment just to ring up and get another one’.”
As the call ended, George immediately texted his friends, who had pushed him to contact the uni for help, saying “they literally do not care”.
“It was terrible,” George said. “I’ve had various counselling sessions before, of varying different qualities, but I’ve never sat in one before thinking ‘oh my god this is awful’. It made me feel worse.”
Uni counselling services are always stretched. Like any healthcare situation with limited resources, there are trade-offs and difficult questions.
Can you see everyone? Who do you make wait? Is it better to offer a small number of appointments to everyone who wants one, or in-depth care to those who are most in need? Huge NHS waiting lists mean people who should be getting care there are pushed on to the uni. But who’s severe enough that they need to be passed on to the NHS urgently?
In the five years to 2019, the proportion of Manchester students trying to get help rose by a quarter, figures obtained by The Tab show. In 2014-15, six per cent of students accessed the uni’s counselling services – in 2018-19, it was eight per cent. That increase is a trend you’ll see at nearly every uni in the country – unis grow in size, and an ever-increasing percentage of those students are trying to get help.
Unis spend a lot of money, whether or not that’s enough, and employ a lot of people to get it right. But students slip through the cracks. During a crisis, when students depend on this care more than ever, things go wrong.
‘It’s already hard to be asking for help. The system is really confusing’
“I’ve hit so many barriers in trying to get my basic care taken care of. I’m definitely fighting an uphill battle here,” said Jess, who’s studying for an MA.
She’s got a diagnosed mental health issue, and the uni’s disability service told her to try and get help from the counselling team. So she tried to email, but was told the only way to get a session was to phone up, and that whenever she called, she needed to be prepared to accept an appointment that day.
Manchester put this system of same-day appointments in place to reduce waiting times, it says. But Jess found it had an unexpectedly bad effect.
For starters, it meant she had to wait to get help – the first time she tried, the line was busy, just like it had been for George. Then she had to wait until the next week to have days where she could clear the whole afternoon. And every time she called, she had to psych herself up all over again, getting mentally prepared for a counselling session that might or might not happen.
“For my mental health preparation as well as just scheduling, it would have been much more helpful to put something on the calendar and prepare for it,” she said.
“It’s really defeating, and it’s already hard to be asking for help and assistance. The system is really confusing. It’s not easy to understand how to reach out and how to access the help that you need.”
When Jess got through, there was more confusion. She was offered a counselling slot just half an hour after the call, and was told to fill in three forms in that time. On the call, she was told the uni could follow up with other people for her, or that she could be put on a four week waiting list for NHS care. Except, the counsellor told her she didn’t qualify for that, and then that she in fact needed help more urgently. A bit confused, Jess said she’d like the follow up from the uni.
Jess didn’t hear back, so had to chase up. The counsellor said she was still trying to find the people to follow up with. Jess hasn’t heard back since that.
“It was very frustrating. It’s very discouraging,” she said. “This process should not be this hard – they should be working to reduce the barriers because it’s hard enough to ask for help.”
Manchester will be changing the narrow window system next term
After The Tab reached out to Manchester Uni, it said it was changing the system of the narrow 90-minute window which caused George and Jess so many problems. It acknowledged that the narrow window “can create difficulties on the appointment line”, and is working to extend it from the current 90 minutes. A live chat function will also be in place for students next semester.
However, after their experiences, both Jess and George have been put off. George has gone back home to look after his mental health. Jess, who was also trying to get help from her GP, has heard back from them, but not from the uni.
A University of Manchester spokesperson told The Tab: “The mental health and wellbeing of our students is of the utmost importance to us, and we offer wide a range of resources and services to support them. We have listened to students, and have increased our services with online and on-site advice and support available for halls students.
“We release counselling and mental health appointments on the day of booking – much like many GP appointment booking services – this is to ensure that we really minimise the wait time to access help, with common wait times across many mental health services elsewhere running to a number of weeks. We do understand that this can create difficulties on the appointment line, and we are working to resolve this by extending the current phone window – and are supplementing this with a live chat function, which we hope to have in place by semester two.
“We are also launching a new 24 hour mental health helpline and app today, which will offer our students access to support from trained counsellors and advisors who are ready to listen and provide help on everything from emotional and physical health, mental health, relationships, managing stress and anxiety, money issues and more. Provided by an independent external provider, Health Assured, the service is free and confidential, and Health Assured’s advisors are highly trained to help support students in the best way possible. This is in addition to the full range of support resources and services already available to our students.
“Regarding the description of conversations within appointments that you mention, those descriptions certainly don’t represent our usual approach. We can’t comment on individual cases publicly, but would advise the students affected to contact our Head of Campus Life to discuss this further.”
The Tab’s You Matter campaign is putting a focus on student mental health right now. If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s difficulties with getting uni support, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]
If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Anxiety UK on 03444 775 774, Mind on 0300 123 3393, and Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35) on 0800 58 58 58.
Jess’s name has been changed to protect her anonymity and allow her to speak freely.