One-third of students rate counselling service as “adequate” or “poor”

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CW: Eating disorders

A Palatinate investigation into student satisfaction with the University’s mental health support services has revealed concerns amongst students surrounding issues such as the quality of the support offered, the ease of access to support, and worries about the lack of out-of-term support.

Palatinate, in collaboration with Durham Polling, conducted a survey of over one hundred students, of whom only 14.1% felt that their counsellor was ‘very good’ at listening and understanding.

At 51.5%, the majority of students described their counsellor as ‘good’ at listening and understanding, whereas 34.4% of those surveyed described their counsellor as ‘adequate’ or ‘poor’.

When asked if they felt supported by their counsellor, 76.6% of respondents agreed and a further 81.3% felt that counselling had improved their overall university experience.

Despite this, one student described what they felt to be a complete lack of support from the University’s mental health support services: “they should be renamed Mental Health Non-Support; they don’t offer support; they certainly haven’t offered me any”.

This student informed Palatinate that they were contacted by the University’s mental health team after being hospitalised for their mental health.

Following this, the student said they were given “an ultimatum” to decide whether they should suspend their studies temporarily, which would include a termination of their scholarship on the grounds that they were “unfit to study”.

“I was put on the spot and asked to describe my mental health issues,” the student informed Palatinate, “they kept repeating they needed information on the nature of my conditions, my triggers […] this in itself is triggering […] and I’d been instructed by the NHS mental health professionals not to talk about it as trauma is approached in a specific way. Nonetheless, the mental health representative kept asking me”.

“I was also kept largely in the dark about what the processes were, no idea whether I was going to be suspended […] if I admitted this process was affecting me, I could be pronounced unfit to study”.

Another student expressed similar concerns about the lack of appropriate support for their own eating disorder-specific mental health issues: “You can’t always see what the background on different counsellors are before choosing your first appointment because some counsellors don’t really have an online presence”

“I needed eating disorder-specific advice and understanding, and without that it meant I was explaining really common traits and habits in eating disorder circles to my counsellor, which was frustrating”.

The student added that more in-depth profiles on each counsellor would also have been beneficial to them as a woman of colour and Muslim: “It would’ve meant that complex issues, particularly during Ramadan, weren’t met with confusion […] I felt I couldn’t really get what I wanted in terms of support because of that”.

Issues around the speed of accessing support and the lack of out-of-term support were other areas of concern raised by students during Palatinate’s investigation.

Palatinate’s survey found that 39.1% of students were waiting between 5-10 days from their initial referral to their first appointment and a further 21.9% were waiting over 10 working days.

“I reached out and filled out all the forms and eventually got to the booking screen. There were loads of slots but only one or two weren’t already taken. I was lucky in that I could make one of the slots available, but I don’t really know what I would’ve done if I couldn’t have made that slot […] it was near the end of term, so it would’ve involved waiting four weeks to finally get some support”

“I know the service is busy, especially with the pandemic, but it does worry me. Like what if I hadn’t been so lucky getting a slot?”

“I’ve also found the break really hard to cope with,” the student continued, “I wish there was some kind of support I could access outside of term time […] having no support during the holidays kind of made me feel like I was back at square one when I came back to counselling after the break”.

Another student echoed these worries: “sessions aren’t run over the holidays and since you’re advised that you can’t have two different forms of counselling at once, you’re just stranded for four to five weeks with minimal support”.

In response to the findings, Jeremy Cook OBE, Durham University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) said: “The health, safety and wellbeing of students, staff and the wider community is always our first priority.

“Students have access to a range of pastoral support through their colleges and central services such as our counselling team, by accessing Covid-secure face-to-face or online services.

“Our advisers are also trained to signpost to telephone or digital services including those used by the NHS.”

The University added that demand for counselling services has increased as a result of Covid-19 and that, as a consequence, they have added additional staffing resources.

A spokesperson informed Palatinate that it is currently able to meet the level of demand but will “continue to keep the situation under active review and take necessary action if this changes”.

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