Palatinate interviews Caroline Dower, Head of Durham University’s Counselling Service

By Tania Chakraborti

A Palatinate investigation into Durham University’s Counselling Service last term found the Service’s staffing shakeup had left it “short of official guidelines and prone to longer waiting times”.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request revealed that though financial investment and specialist staff numbers had increased, the number of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) counsellors had been cut.

The Service now has the equivalent of 2.0 FTE Mental Health Counsellors, 0.8 Psychological Wellbeing Practitioners, 0.5 Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Centre (RSACC) specialists and 0.5 trainees.

The number of FTE staff who fall specifically under the bracket of ‘counsellor’ has fallen from 6.2 to 5.4

Despite this, the number of FTE staff who fall specifically under the bracket of ‘counsellor’ has fallen from 6.2 to 5.4. This places Durham’s student-counsellor ratio below the recommended figure of one counsellor per 3,000 students, as outlined by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).

Including the specialist staff, Durham’s ratio is within the recommended ratio, at 1: 2,197. However, according to the BACP, specialist counsellors are not factored into the recommended student-counsellor ratio.

The Association’s report states: “Some counselling posts have been changed and replaced with jobs carrying different titles, for example, wellbeing consultants or mental health advisers. Such provision can be useful in institutions.

“However, this does not replace the need for fully trained and qualified counsellors.” Palatinate met with Caroline Dower, the Head of the Counselling Service, to discuss the figures.

Ms Dower said: “The people with a counselling qualification – we have got slightly fewer of those, but what we’ve added is community psychiatric nurses, mental health advisors, and we’ve added the psychological wellbeing practitioner.

“And then the other resource that’s been added is the extra specialist counselling provided by the rape and sexual abuse counselling centre.”

Waiting times are also an issue for the Service. One anonymous student reported: “it was a matter of weeks for [an appointment with] the main Counselling Service but over nine months for the Rape Crisis service.”

In response, Ms Dower said this sounded like an “unusual experience”.

She continued: “Depending on, of course, what time in term people present, there may be a few weeks of wait just because the student’s not there [in Durham] either…

“But yes it’s certainly the case that the Rape Crisis outside the University has got waiting times of about nine months – in the NHS you’re typically waiting three months for individual sessions so in comparison I think we’re offering a really great service…

“That’s also why we have that limit of up to four sessions as a first contract, otherwise it would be really hard for students to get in.

“It allows us to be really responsive to what I think is the most important timing thing we’ve got to get right, which is to see people at that moment when people say, ‘Now I need some help’.”

In the 2016/2017 academic year, the total expenditure on the Counselling Service was £607,645, an increase on previous years.

Asked where this funding had gone, Ms Dower told Palatinate: “There are two specific areas where extra funding has gone in, one was when the mental health advisor post was added – that was certainly an extra chunk of budget.

In the NHS “you’re typically waiting three months for individual sessions”, she says

“In terms of measuring the impact of that, I think what we look to is really very positive feedback that we’ve received from the students who have seen the mental health advisor but also very importantly from the college staff and the academic staff who’ve felt really supported in dealing with students in particular mental health crisis.

“The second extra chunk of change has been for sexual violence and that money has gone into… two different streams. Part of it funds the rape and sexual abuse counselling… They are now here for three and a half days a week.

“I would say that’s about £25-£30,000 of the amount, about £20-£25,000 has gone on the Rape Crisis Counselling Service. The other half of the sexual violence funding has been to fund the training initiatives and the online consent.”

The Freedom of Information request submitted by Palatinate last term also revealed the number of students attending counselling sessions has not increased in proportion to increased spending, with 1,400 students utilising the service at least once last academic year, compared to 1,582 in 2014/15.

The waiting for students “is often as much about student availability as it is about staff availability”

When asked why she thought this was the case, Ms Dower said: “There’s going to be a bit of variation year on year. “I think that what we do have is a really good network across the University of support and I think one of the things I spend a lot of time working with the colleges is to make sure that the colleges are offering really good support to students because they’re open, available, immediate, at the end of the corridor…

“So for the students who live in, particularly, I think those college officers are a really good point of contact.” College welfare officers at the University are currently only Nightline-trained and trained internally within college. When asked whether she thought college welfare officers were sufficiently trained, Ms Dower said: “I know there’s kind of a tradition really, of Nightline offering the training, and what we want to do is really support students offering support to students.

“I think at other moments there’s been talk about whether the University might get involved in training student officers more formally, and I think we have to always find the right balance between what’s appropriate for the University to get involved with and what should students be running for themselves with our support…

“If students would like the Counselling Service to offer more specific training I’m really happy to do that, but also if Nightline are doing a good job, and if welfare officers feel really supported by the Nightline training, I’ll support Nightline doing the training.”

This is your degree, this is your investment in your future and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, come forward

In response to the suggestion that some student welfare officers may feel insufficiently trained for the range of complex issues they encounter in the role, Ms Dower said:“I see a really important role for the counselling service in both supporting those doing the support – so all of the colleges would know that if any of them or JCR officers are feeling the strain then they can access our service or support.

“But also what we do is… try to convey a message that it’s great to offer your friends support – that’s the most, warm, humane way to respond. “But also to recognise that this is your degree, this is your investment in your future and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, come forward, bring your concerns and signpost to professionals… We want to lift that load.”

Photograph: Durham University

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