We need to talk about Mental Health Services at King’s
The fall and (hopeful) rise of KCL Counselling
Earlier this year, King's published their ambitious 2029 Strategic Vision, where they set out the high target of delivering "world class support in wellbeing" for all King's students.
Yet, in the wake of the KCLSU's Wellbeing Week, it's hard to not feel a little uneasy over the university making such bold claims, while the SU seems to be the only one fighting the fight King's should be leading.
Weeks like these are a stark contrast to the reality of King's Student Support: over two months of waiting time for appointments, a single qualified psychiatrist available for 3,000 yearly student users and no counselling support for KCL staff at all.
So, how can King's be making such bold claims when they have yet to grasp basic mental health support for students most at risk?
King's has attempted to take steps to improve their wellbeing services by introducing Peer to Peer Support – aiming to train students to support their peers in a bid to alleviate waiting times and perhaps even take pressure off the Counselling Service. But, clearly, this is not a solution.
Indeed, it's rather trendy nowadays as a university to say that you're all for mental health, and easy to be all talk and no action for the sake of some good PR. But I have high hopes that this is not the case for King's.
Speaking to Stephanie Griffiths, Head of Counselling at KCL, I had many questions about what this newly hailed 'Strategic Vision'™ meant for the Service.
A key question was the how much actual funding King's had put into these specialist services following their pledge. I was informed that last year, a long overdue funding boost almost doubled the university's annual investment from £700k to £1.2 million, which has allowed the service to take on five trainees and strengthen ties with the sports programmes, which have been linked to an improvement in mood for participants.
Despite all this, the continued reluctance to add a second psychiatrist to their ranks can perhaps be explained by the university's desire for the counselling service not to be seen as a platform for prolonged support. While they offer same day appointments for those at crisis point, sessions for students less at risk are often limited, which can leave students feeling alienated at a crucial point in their recovery.
Like many other universities, King's has worked to strengthen ties with external counselors, such as the NHS, to bridge this gap in their service. But with NHS waiting times themselves at a critical juncture, it is difficult to see how much this move can help students needing long term support.
In turn, I can't help but wonder where else our increasingly higher tuition fees should be going, other than to a tailored, long term support system for King's students specifically.
As members of an academic institution, we are naturally riddled with the daily stresses of essays and pressures of deadlines from our respective departments – it is no wonder that the rate of first year students requesting mental health support has more than quadrupled in the past decade.
What better way to help us, then, than to expand the range of medical professionals who are fully aware of the cogs and gears of the KCL machine, rather than deferring to services like the NHS which are far more removed from a KCL student's experience?
Levi Pay, the interim Director of Student Support and Wellbeing Services at King's, hinted at the beginnings of such a possible approach – noting that the King's mental health service has been increasingly working with departments in carrying out research projects into the "factors that influence student mental health [in order to] ensure students are accessing the right support when they need it". But this research has yet to bear its fruits.
Following their pledge, it's apparent that the university has focused on expanding services such as Wellbeing, promoting life coaching and more preventative measures to help the community as a whole, but it seems to have forgotten the indispensability of the counselling service along the way – in many senses, they seem to be running before they can walk.
So, in the wake of KCL's vow to become a “world leader” of student mental health services, we are left asking ourselves if their investment is enough to reach such a high target. And although as students we wish them every success, one thing is clear: a lot of work needs to be done.