‘It’s almost inaccessible because of how long you have to wait’: What it’s really like using the Edi mental health services

‘I was very aware that the only reason I got help so quickly was because I was so mentally unstable’


December can be one of the most stressful times of year as a student. Exams are looming, our homesickness is through the roof, and we're lacking all things festive in our life. It's these times, when a lot of students are at their lowest point, that they need to be able to count on their university's mental health facilities.

Unfortunately, many who've used the Edinburgh University's mental health services feel short-changed by what's offered. Therefore, I asked some of these individuals what their experiences were like. Regardless of whether they needed help to get through a minor stressful episode or a full-blown relapse, these students all agreed on one thing: the services offered here simply aren't good enough.

Here's what they had to say.

The waiting times are too long

For anyone, getting an appointment is a long process that involves sitting near the bottom of the large waiting list (unless the student is in a dangerous position). Sarah*, a first year philosophy student, has struggled with depression for much of her life. "It was really easy signing up, but it took me a month to get assessed by a counsellor, and then another month after that to be given an actual appointment" she said.

Sarah continued: "The waiting time is just too long. I can't imagine how it must feel for someone who is really in a crisis. I really believe that the counselling service they offer is a valuable one, but right now it's almost inaccessible because of how long you have to wait."

Some students, like Amelia, who's in her third year studying Social Anthropology, are able to bypass the waiting times. She was suffering from a relapse of her depression and eating disorder. "It was relatively easy for me to get help because I was bad enough. I was very aware that the only reason I got help so quickly was because I was so mentally unstable" she explains.

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A section of the self-referral form

The counselling works – when you get it

Once students finally access the counselling, many agree that it's very effective. Sarah has seen improvement in just two sessions and loves her counsellor. She says: "She gives me a lot of space to answer her questions or speak about what's on my mind, and I always feel so much lighter walking out of there."

Much like Sarah, Gemma*, a second year studying bio med, has recently sought help for her issues, which include chronic anxiety. "When I met the counsellor, she got me to talk about my problems and background, basically hashing out everything that may cause me to feel the way I do" she said.

Kirsty, a politics student, was feeling unusually stressed and overwhelmed about her upcoming second year of university and wanted someone to talk to. She explains: "It was really helpful in letting me understand why I was feeling that way. It also helps to have someone independent to talk to, as you’re not worried that they’ll be worried about you."

Clearly, the service is something students need, and it actually helps them.

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Sometimes uni can be too much

Most people only get four sessions

As much as counselling may work for a little while, it won't yield long-term results unless it's a long-term process. The standard amount of counselling for students is four sessions, and those in more precarious positions receive six.

"[My counsellor] told me that my next possible counselling session would be in over a month's time. Additionally, when I eventually got an appointment, only four sessions could be subsidised by the university. After that I would have to seek a private therapist" explains Gemma.

"This is very unrealistic, as you can't build any sort of therapist/patient relationship. After only four sessions, you would be funnelled into a completely different system."

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Four sessions won't be enough for this exam season

Emma* is a second year psychology student currently in counselling for depression. She worries about what she's going to do when her sessions run out. "Obviously dealing with mental illness is a long process, so I’m not going to be significantly better in four sessions," she says. "It’s not going to help most people with issues that they’ve been dealing with for a significant amount of time."

More long-term treatment would help improve mental health, which Amelia reiterates. She agrees, "I do feel better for having gone, but I wish I'd had more than just six weeks. It really wasn't enough to fix me, but was a nice starting point, I guess."

It's not the service's fault, according to Kirsty. She admits, "I did feel a lot better afterwards, but could have done with maybe another couple of sessions. Maybe in general not having a restriction on the number of sessions would be nice, but I understand that they have a lot of people and can’t offer unlimited counselling."

University services are the only option for most

Edinburgh mental health services are inaccessible, at best, but it's many students' only option when it comes to mental health treatment.

Emma compared university counselling to what she could get elsewhere. "The uni service is significantly better than paying £80 for one counselling session, and the waiting times are better than the NHS. I was told by a doctor that I'd have to wait one year for an evaluation and then six months for an actual appointment."

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Getting outside counselling is hard

Gemma had a similar experience, saying, "I don't have the money to pay for £60+ sessions, and I don't want to ask my parents, as it's something I would rather deal with myself. A lot of people at this university aren't privileged enough to afford that."

Most people, especially students, will have to deal with some kind of mental health issue at some point in their life. The general consensus? Mental health services at Edinburgh lack resources to allow individuals to adequately manage their wellbeing.

In response to these students, a university spokesperson said: “The health and wellbeing of our students is of the utmost priority. We have stepped up efforts to promote our facilities and raise awareness of mental health issues among students and staff. It is, therefore, encouraging that more students are coming forward to get the support they need.

“We are aware that this increase in demand puts pressure on the facilities. In recognition, we have more than doubled the budget of our Counselling Service over the last decade. Last year, we invested £995,000 in the service. A further £150,000 has been committed for this academic year.

“We operate an evidence-based, short-term model of counselling, with an average of four sessions with a qualified counsellor, although some students may require more than this depending on their circumstances. In a small number of cases the counsellor may conclude that counselling is not the right intervention for the individual and advise them of alternative or more suitable forms of support and resources. Last year we saw 90 per cent of students for an initial therapeutic consultation within two weeks, and 98 per cent within three weeks.

“The mental health support provided by the University is intended to supplement and enhance, rather than replace or duplicate, NHS provision. In addition to one-to-one support, the Counselling Service also offer a wide range of other forms of support including wellbeing workshops, guided self-help and access to online support packages.

“We are also investing £8 million in the creation of a new Student Wellbeing Centre in Bristo Square. The fully accessible building will give students easy access to an expanded range of essential services. Edinburgh’s Student Counselling and Disability Services will be brought together with the medical practice and pharmacy for the first time. The Centre is due to open in 2019.”

*Some names have been changed to protect participants' anonymity.