Cardiff is the sixth worst uni in the UK at dealing with mental health

Demand for counselling is on the rise


The University of Cardiff has come 25th out of 30 universities in The Tab’s inaugural 2016 Mental Health Rankings.

Cardiff’s ranking is result of a number of poor results for the university – in all the areas in which it was scored, Cardiff came in the bottom ten universities. The university got the third lowest score in real term investment into the counselling service, indicating that counselling budgets have not kept up with the rate of demand for the service. Applications have increased from 1,131 in 2011/12 to nearly 2,500 in 2015/16.

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

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.

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 10 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.

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.
Ben Lewis, at Cardiff University, said: “I agree with you that this is an extremely important issue and one that deserves a high level of scrutiny.

“The headline is misleading as it does not compare the whole sector. It is based on 30 institutions who responded to your Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Therefore it is inaccurate to assert that we are the “6th worst in the sector”. It is also a based on an FOI that was not overtly designed for a “league table” and did not have clear use of terminology. For example, some of the institutions listed account for what we call ‘mental health advice’ under counselling, others do not. The 30 respondents exclude some HEIs that have reduced mental health support in recent years;

“The terms used in your articles are not consistently applied nor are the operating models of the institutions. For example, the University of Birmingham offer a predominantly traditional counselling model whilst Cardiff University offers a ‘pathway to care model’ which is risk based and accessible to more students. We also offer groups, outreach and peer support. As a result we see a lot more people through different types of engagement;

“The amount spent per applicant to the counselling service metric is misleading. My understanding is that this does not relate to spend per student at the institution. Cardiff University will do ‘poorly’ in this comparison as we get more people coming to us because of the way our service is provided. On Counselling “applicants” – not all the people we engage with are “applicants”, it depends what they want and what is wrong. The survey terminology is therefore unclear, so the data is not comparable;

“Your article refers to an “outreach score” and you define this as “the percentage of students who have a mental health issue at each university that said … they had told the university in some respect that they have a mental health issue”. This will vary substantially depending on a wide range of factors. The support they get may very well have nothing to do with counselling but your coverage focusses on counselling provision. Again, this is not made clear in your article;

“Your average waiting time score cannot be compared across different models of mental health support different Universities operate. There is no standard model across the HE sector, so comparing this in a statistically valid way is not possible.”