Birmingham is the tenth worst uni in the UK at dealing with mental health

Demand for counselling is on the rise


The University of Birmingham has come 21st out of 30 universities in The Tab’s inaugural 2016 Mental Health Rankings. Birmingham’s ranking is due to average to poor results all round – the university finished 19th in student satisfaction and 16th in outreach.

The standout score was real term investment into the counselling service – the university got the second lowest score, meaning that as applications have increased to the service, funding hasn’t. Bizarrely, the university also has high scores for how much money it spends on the service per applicant. This suggest that for a university that size, Birmingham has previously seen a lower frequency of students reporting to the counselling service, and that is now beginning to change.

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The Tab’s 2016 Mental Health Rankings are the first ever attempt to judge universities on how they treat mental health, with the aim to improve standards nationally, reward good universities, and highlight underperforming universities. Some 30 of the best universities in the UK are included.

Some 70 per cent of students did not apply for extenuating circumstances, despite being ill. It’s a pattern reflected in other universities: over 86 per cent of Oxford students did the same, while the national average was 74 per cent.

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The new rankings are the result of increased media coverage over student’s mental health. Until now, there had been no detailed examinations of how universities across Britain are coping with increasing numbers of students struggling with mental health issues.

Demand for mental health services has shot up at a time when there are less resources to go around. The NHS is facing front-line cuts that affect students particularly – GP practices at universities get less money than other general practices. The lack of trained psychiatrists across Britain, plus the “cascade” of cuts down the NHS, mean that universities have been pushed into the front-line.

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According to Jeremy Christey, who works in the Sussex University Counselling Service as well as running StudentAgainstDepression.org, NHS cuts have had a staggered impact on mental health care:

“The NHS threshold has gone up, which means that it’s harder to get access to treatment in all parts of mental health services. There’s less money for inpatient services, so more complex people are in the care of crisis services, which means that more people go from crisis to lower-tier services. There’s a cascade effect that impacts students, and as NHS trusts know that students have a university counselling service to go to, people can often be pointed back in our direction.”

This means both doctors and counsellors are working harder than ever to treat as many students as they can. Nationally, stories abound of students who haven’t been seen in months, or who have asked for help only to be turned aside, at both counselling services and doctor’s offices. Glasgow has a waiting list of seven to ten months, and York has had to re-evaluate its entire mental health provision.

Other universities have turned to ‘wellbeing services’, and slashed counselling – despite counselling sessions still being the “heart of the services” according to Student Health Association’s Honorary Secretary Dr Dominique Thomson.

Meg was struggling with depression and anxiety in her first term studying Politics at Birmingham, and went to see the counselling service after being referred by her doctor. There, she was told that her anti-depressant prescription wasn’t enough to qualify her for support and counselling, and she would need an official note from her doctor. After having to pay for her note, she sent it through to the counselling service, having been promised a response within the week. She never received a response.

A Birmingham spokesperson emphasised the variety of options available, including mental health advisors, the disability service, counselling, wellbeing advisors, psychoeducational workshops and therapeutic groups. They also said: “The University recognises that young people can be under increasing amounts of stress and pressure, including pressure to achieve academically and managing social and economic challenges of being a student. Our Student Support Services work to provide effective and accessible interventions aimed at supporting students in managing and overcoming barriers to engaging with the academic and social opportunities available to them at the University.

“The University of Birmingham has worked hard in recent years to raise awareness of, and to lessen the stigma of mental health issues, and aim to encourage students who may need help to seek it.”

Despite the somewhat negative outlook, Dr Thomson still stressed the importance of going to your GP: Often with psychiatric or psychological care of any kind, there’s a waiting list. It’s important for us to say to patients, look: “You’re on the list, you will be seen.” In the mean time, we offer bridging work, often with third sector organisations, like group work or a couple of one-on-one counselling sessions, that provide some level of care before they can get treated properly.”

If you are struggling with mental health, please reach out. Organisations like the Samaritans are here to help. To see how we compiled the rankings, click here.