‘It took two weeks to even get a reply’: Inside the University of Sheffield’s counselling service

Not everyone had a good experience

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Last week we revealed demand for counselling appointments has nearly doubled in the last five years.

Over 2,000 people requested an appointment with our university's counselling service in the 2015/16 academic year compared with 1,200 five years previously.

The counselling service has undoubtedly helped the mental health of hundreds of Sheffield students.

But is the increase in appointment requests due to greater awareness of the mental health facilities available or because of more students experiencing issues with their mental health? And are services able to cope under increased pressure?

The Tab spoke to three students who have accessed, or at least tried to access, the counselling service, to find out their personal experience of how the Uni of Sheffield is coping with the increased for mental health services.

How long did it take for the University Counselling Service to reply to your initial request for help?

When accessing the service, the website says it may take up to three working days to process requests.

"Roughly 2 weeks." – Ellie, Second Year

"About 5 working days." – Ryan, First Year

"A week." – Clare, Second Year

When you rang to book an assessment, how soon was the university able to offer you an appointment?

"The first appointment which suited both me and the service was three weeks later." – Ellie

"It took me about two weeks to pluck up the courage to actually ring the number as I was accessing the service for anxiety but once I did they could offer me an appointment in about two weeks’ time." – Ryan

"I think it was about three days later." – Clare

How did you find the assessment?

"The counsellor was really friendly and tried her best to empathise with my problems. However, at the end of the appointment she told me that the service was oversubscribed at the moment and I didn’t seem in need of urgent help. She gave me the details of Big White Wall, an online self-help service, to try out instead." – Ellie

"I was incredibly anxious about the triage assessment as I had never had counselling for my anxiety before or even spoken to anyone about it. When I explained my situation to the counsellor he told me that lots of people feel the way I do, especially when they first come to university, but that the service understood the importance of helping before things get worse. Overall, the triage appointment was really useful and I was given a programme of counselling as a follow up." – Ryan

"I found the assessment fairly basic. Having had counselling before coming to uni I knew what to expect and what the counsellors needed to know to effectively assess my condition. However, I didn’t find the experience particularly useful. The counsellor listened to my problems well but explained that because of how many people urgently needed help, I didn’t fit the criteria at this point. I was offered some online self-help but I instead opted to find a private counsellor." – Clare

What was your experience like having counselling with the University Counselling Service?

"Initially the sessions were really helpful. My counsellor gave me tasks to go away and do every week which I found difficult but tried hard to complete. The problem came after the sixth session when I was told that there weren’t sufficient resources to carry on my treatment. At the start my counsellor said that they could only offer up to ten sessions, but I was expecting to receive at least eight before my case was reviewed and ended. I wasn’t ready to stop the counselling that early and I think it has prevented me from making as much progress as I could have had the sessions carried on for a few more weeks." – Ryan

How effective did you find the self-help programme?

"I tried it with an open-mind but found it very unhelpful. You aren’t able to talk through your problems and so it’s very different to how I would expect counselling to be. I stopped using it after about three days." – Ellie

Why did you decide to use private counselling instead of waiting for the University Counselling Service?

"I was suffering from a depressive relapse and so, having had counselling before, I knew that I needed to get immediate help before the situation got worse. I didn’t ask how long the waiting list was for the uni service, so I thought the best thing to do was get the help of a private counsellor as I’ve heard the NHS waiting list is incredibly long too." – Clare

What are your general opinions on the University Counselling Service?

"I think that the service would be useful if it wasn’t so oversubscribed. Obviously I haven’t been able to access it myself, but from what I’ve heard from friends who have had treatment, it is an effective way of helping with mental health problems. My situation has improved naturally now, but in future I would try to access help from this service again." – Ellie

"Generally, the service is good but the lack of resources available for long-term treatment is definitely a draw-back." – Ryan

"I’m sure the service is very helpful for those who have urgent mental health conditions as I found the accessing a triage appointment very fast and simple. But as someone who isn’t deemed in urgent need of help, I didn’t have a very positive experience with the University Counselling Service." – Clare

What do the University have to say?

​Susan Bridgeford, Director for Student Support Services at the University of Sheffield, ​said: ​“Our University Counselling Service is committed to continually improving the quality and standard of the service we deliver. Nationally there is a rising trend of demand for counselling services and demand on our service is in line with this. Better support in schools leading to earlier diagnoses for young people and the increasing openness around mental health are factors in the increased demand.

"The University works closely with our Students' Union on matters relating to student welfare, well-being and mental health. Last year we developed a new mental health triage service, SAMHS (Student Access to Mental Health Support). Online registration is available 24 hours a day which ensures students can quickly receive the clinical support they need. This has involved substantial financial investment as part of our response to rising demand and changing student needs.

"We have also introduced an online resource, Big White Wall, which is available to all students at the University 24 hours a day, which offers both online peer and professional support with trained counsellors.

“The welfare of our students is very important to us and the fact that we are one of only two universities to provide our own GP service on campus is a demonstration of our commitment to student health and welfare.”

Disclaimer: Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed