Durham University’s counselling service experienced a 39% increase in the number of appointments attended in 2019-20, according to statistics published by the University. In 2019-20, 9,400 counselling service appointments were attended by Durham students, compared to 6,754 the previous year. Between 2017-18 and 2019-20 there was a 17% increase in the number of appointments attended.
The statistics include appointments and consultations undertaken by both the Counselling and Psychological Wellbeing team and the Mental Health Team.
Durham University told Palatinate that demand for the Counselling Service, which offers up to six counselling sessions per year to each student has “increased as a result of Covid-19”. A previous investigation by Palatinate revealed that as a result of lockdown, Durham students reported feeling “isolated”, “abandoned” and “alone”.
The University has added “additional staffing resources as a consequence” of the increased demand. Since September 2019, the University has hired two Mental Health advisers, one psychological wellbeing practitioner, and one counsellor.
A Freedom of Information request by Palatinate revealed that actual expenditure on the University Counselling service rose from £601,700 in 2018/19 to £705,000 in 2019/20, £36.14 per student. These figures do not include expenditure on training staff to support students with mental health difficulties (where this is only a fractional element of their role).
The number of students known to the service increased by five per cent in 2019-20. 10.1% of students are known to the University Counselling Service, increasing from 1,862 students in the previous year (2018-19) to 1,954 students. Over the last five years, nearly two thirds of students who sought counselling were female. 1,297 female students accessed the service in 2019- 20, which amounts to 12.4% of female students at the University compared to 7.3% of the population of male students.
The number of male students accessing the Counselling service decreased from 672 in 2018-19 to 646 in 2019-20, with 11 students who accessed the service not identifying as male or female.
Among undergraduates, the number of third year students who seek counselling from the University is around five times higher than first year students.
811 of the undergraduate students who used the service in 2019-20 were third years, compared to 160 first year students and 456 second year students. 162 of the undergraduates who accessed the service were fourth or fifth year students.
Students can self-refer to the University Counselling Service, or they can be referred by a staff member or a third party.
The University offers a range of mental health services to students, including a Psychological Wellbeing Service which offers “information and guidance” on self-help resources. Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners (PWPs) offer 15 or 30 minute sessions. Durham students can also access psychoeducational programmes via SilverCloud without a referral to the Counselling Service.
As part of Durham University’s £50 million Digital Strategy, students have access to Miindset, an AI platform for “students who seek to improve their mental wellbeing”.
The University’s Mental Health Advice Team is also accessible to students who may need support to access local NHS services, information on mental health conditions, or who need a mental health assessment. Mental Health Advisors offer “advice and guidance” to students with diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health difficulties, but cannot provide treatment.
The University told Palatinate that there has been “a notable and increasing number of support meetings that our Mental Health Advisors attend.” The University is also recruiting “additional Mental Health Advisor support with a focus on Mental Health training”. This follows the approval of the University’s first Health and Wellbeing strategy which “identifies student mental health as a key priority area”.
In 2019-20, there was a 127% increase in the total number of consultations and administrative actions carried out by University Mental Health Advisors, from 1,950 in 2018-18 to 4,417 in 2019-20.
A spokesperson for the Durham branch of the University and College Union (UCU) was critical of the University approach to mental health support, telling Palatinate, “when we say that the university needs to provide for mental health support, for both staff and students, we don’t mean the provision of another well-being app. We need actual trained people with expertise and experience in providing this kind of support.”
They continued: “Some members of staff are given access to resources and information that they can direct students to. Other members (such as GTAs) are simply told to direct students to their college welfare team.
“The vast majority of members of staff do not have any training or formal qualifications in providing mental health support. We are not trained counsellors or psychologists. We are not trained suicide support professionals, or trained in supporting students in mental health crises. That we do so provides another layer of challenge.”
When asked if they feel able to help students who are struggling with mental health issues, Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, assistant professor in Philosophy, said: “No. I am not an expert in this. I have no formal training or qualifications in mental health support. I have no knowledge of what is useful or what is not.
“I also know that if I point my students towards the resources that are available, these are often inadequate or inaccessible. It’s a horrible position to be in.
“As someone who is not formally trained in any of these things, you know that if a student is coming to you for help, it’s because they’re not getting what they need elsewhere, and it’s awful to know that there’s little you can provide as well.”
The University touched on the steps it has taken to alleviate the impact of Covid-19 on student mental health, saying: “The University Counselling service are now a bigger team and able to support more students whilst ensuring that all appointments and consultations are recorded to reflect the full range of work that is being undertaken by our dedicated staff. In doing so, we are able to accurately reflect their workload and the support being provided to our students.
“The University expanded the capacity of its counselling service between 2018-19 and 2019-20 as well as undergoing a temporary expansion to help support students during the lockdown and pandemic when there has been the greatest demand for mental health support.
“The University’s Counselling Service’s staffing ratio mirrors that recommended by The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy with whom we are accredited.”
Durham SU Welfare and Liberation Officer, Ewan Swift told Palatinate that whilst it is “positive” that increased demand for the Counselling service is being met with an increase in staff capacity, “the service must ensure that demand is being appropriately met, and I have been in regular contact with the service throughout the pandemic to ensure that.
“We must continue to have open dialogue with Welfare Officers on the ground to understand the diversity of issues students are facing and keep in contact with the Counselling Service to understand demand and capacity. Further, I will continue to fight for students by putting pressure on the University to do the right thing in addressing pressing student issues before they manifest into mental health stressors.
“Durham University must listen to its student body and the student leaders who are presenting the issues they see every day. The Student Support Review will go a long way to improve how the University reactively support students with their mental health, but ensuring that they proactively address student concerns with haste will mitigate against the negative impacts these issues are having on student mental health.”
A University spokesperson said: “Normal student coping mechanisms aren’t available in lockdown and have been limited during the wider Covid-19 pandemic. This includes meeting with friends, playing sport, enjoying live music etc.
“As such, we are finding an increasing need from students who wish to reach out to our Counselling Service and we have taken action to ensure that we have the capacity to deal with all of them.
“Like all other student support services across the University and its Colleges, the Counselling Service has moved its provision online, so our services have remained accessible to students Around five times more third year students than first years sought counselling in 2019-20 wherever they are geographically.
“Additionally, the Service has set up Zoom support groups with Counsellors to work with various groups of students in addressing the change in needs that have arisen from the student body as a result of the pandemic. The team continue to be as responsive as possible and continue to consult with a variety of student groups to determine how to best meet their needs.
“We recognise that this year has placed additional academic pressure on students. In response, we have introduced the Academic Safety Net, an integrated set of policies and practices aiming to ensure that no student’s educational attainment is worsened as a result of the pandemic.
“As part of the Academic Safety Net, all work will be assessed in a way which takes account of the challenging conditions in which our students are preparing for and taking their assessments, and we will consider mitigating circumstances for all students affected by Covid-19 as a matter of course (i.e. without requiring students to submit individual SACs due to Covid-19) for every assessment.
“Students can request coursework extensions of up to a week if needed and can defer one or more examinations to the summer reassessment period.”
Image: James Tillotson