By Sophie Gregory
Durham University’s Counselling Service has reduced its number of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) counsellors from 6.2 to 5.4 for this academic year, leaving it short of the recommended counsellor-student ratio.
Though overall staff numbers and spending levels have both been increased, information provided by the Counselling Service reveals the cut in counsellors puts Durham below the official minimum proportion of full-time counsellors to students, as advised by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).
According to the BACP’s Sector Overview of University and College Counselling Services, published in October 2017, a counsellor-student ratio of 1:3,000 “has been seen as minimum provision”.
Despite being met last academic year, the newly decreased total of FTE counselling staff means this is not now being reached at Durham.
In 2016/17, with a student populace of 17,927 and 6.2 FTE counsellors, the ratio was approximately 1:2,891, but for 2017/18, with 5.4 counsellors, the relationship is closer to 1:3,300.
Official statistics for the University’s present student population are not yet available, but using last year’s figures, the ratio for this academic year stands at one counsellor for every 3,331 students.
Overall, there has been an increase in Counselling Service staff, with the addition of one Mental Health Advisor. The staffing team is comprised of 5.4 counsellors, two Mental Health Advisors, 0.8 FTE Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners, 0.5 FTE Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre (RSACC) specialists, and 0.5 FTE trainees.
A Palatinate Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed expenditure steadily increased by over £200,000 in the last five academic years, though the number of students attending counselling sessions has not increased in proportion to this spending.
In 2016/17, the Counselling Service’s total expenditure reached £607,745, including £50,000 for Sexual Violence support and training. This is an increase on the £500,100 spent in 2015/16. Mental health at university is an increasingly prominent concern: a 2016 YouGov poll found some 27% of students suffer from mental health problems, while a survey of Durham students by The Tab last June showed 54% of 405 respondents saying “they have suffered from a mental illness”.
Despite this increase in investment and media exposure, fewer than 10% of Durham students attended even one counselling session in the past four academic years. There was, in fact, a decline in the number of students attending the Counselling Service in the last academic year, a fall from 1,582 in 2015/16 to 1,400 in 2016/17.
When asked by Palatinate why they chose to use other services over the University’s Counselling Service, one anonymous student stated: “I found the NHS service much more accessible and specifically targeted towards what I am experiencing (e.g. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for social anxiety) and just generally better advertised, with the University it’s quite unclear where you’re supposed to go.
“Also using a service outside of my place of education just felt more anonymous.”
Despite a significant focus on ensuring the Counselling Service is able to support students, some experiences have fallen short. One student told Palatinate: “It was a matter of weeks for the main counselling service but over nine months for the Rape Crisis service.
“I had an assessment and six sessions before being discharged without any support at all for months, despite describing issues with self-harm and depression. The counsellor frequently made unhelpful comments, including suggesting that I should consider trying to contact my rapist in order to find some ‘resolution’.
“I found it overwhelmingly unhelpful and not nearly enough to meet my needs. The Rape Crisis counselling was genuinely life-changing but it came far too late.
“I think that the waiting times are appalling for specialist care and only require the University spending money on the problem instead of making lots of noise in their initiatives.
“I also think that there are some key groups of people who are completely unsupported – including men who have been sexually assaulted who are unable to see a specialist as the organisation who offers help only accept women.”
Of those attending the Counselling Service, there is a wide discrepancy between the male and female sex.
Consistently, the total number of females using counselling is approximately double that of males. In 2016/17, 944 females attended one session of counselling in comparison to 456 males, while in the preceding year 1,073 women used the Service compared to 509 men.
In response to this disparity, Owen Adams, the University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), told Palatinate: “There are differences in the uptake of Counselling services between male and female students, a difference which is reflected in the national picture of psychological therapies.
“The range of services now available in the Counselling Service may support students to find a service that meets their needs and preferences.”
Mr Adams added: “Durham University invests significantly in pastoral support for our students.
“We offer support through our Colleges and Academic Departments, working in partnership with the central student support services, which includes Counselling and Disability Support.
“Students exercise choice in how they access support. We also maintain close links with local NHS providers.
“At Durham, as at other universities, we have seen large increases in the number of students disclosing mental health issues as a disability either prior to or during their studies.
“This reflects both an increase in the diagnosis of issues during school years and legislative changes that have encouraged a broader potential student body to consider higher education applications.
“The University has significantly increased its support for mental health services in recent years. The Counselling Service provision was relaunched to ensure that students understand the support available within the Service, and that they are quickly and effectively directed towards appropriate services that it offers, which includes counselling, mental health advice and psychological wellbeing programmes.
“One example is SilverCloud, a suite of online psychoeducational modules available 24 hours a day via smartphones, tablets and PCs.
“The Counselling Service has added a Mental Health Advisor and Psychological Wellbeing Support, and hosts the specialist service Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre, which provides support for students who have sexual violence, wherever and whenever this has occurred.”
Despite the confidence of the University, Rosa Tallack, Welfare and Liberation Officer, does not feel the University is doing enough. In a statement, she emphasised: “Durham desperately needs to look at external factors and take responsibility for the stress cultures and high levels of mental distress it plays a part in creating.”
Another student told Palatinate: “University is a uniquely stressful time and they should be encouraging people to seek out support. The service has a bad reputation and they need to work on improving that to ensure that their students are not suffering alone, particularly men. I think people are aware of the existing issues with wait times and it means that they don’t bother to sign up for help.”
Image: Caitlin Allard