UK university counselling teams ‘chronically understaffed’

Hepi report says some universities should increase their funding for mental health services at least threefold

September 22, 2016
Seated woman looking at empty chair
Source: Alamy

Counselling teams at UK universities are staffed at just a quarter or a third of the level required to meet demand, a study claims.

A report published by the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) recommends that those institutions spending the least on mental health services should increase their funding at least threefold, in response to mounting evidence of the increased prevalence of well-being issues among students.

Author Poppy Brown, a third-year undergraduate studying psychology and philosophy at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, estimates that the current student-to-counsellor ratio in UK higher education is about 1:5,000.

But the necessary ratio is actually more like 1:1,358, she says – based on the assumptions that 12 per cent of undergraduates believe that they have a mental health condition, according to a recent survey, that one full-time counsellor can see five students a day for 50 minutes each, and that each student tends to have four sessions, over the course of a 26-week year. The ratio required rises to 1:2,291 over a 44-week year.

Ms Brown, a mental health volunteer and researcher, argues that increased investment in counselling will prove cost-effective in the long term.

She cites research by the National Union of Students in Scotland that found that the country’s higher education institutions spent an average of just £200,000 on counselling services annually: less than the salary of most vice-chancellors.

Meanwhile Brunel University London estimates that its counselling service already saves it £2.5 million a year in tuition fees that would otherwise be lost as a result of students dropping out.

In the report, Ms Brown says that it “seems reasonable to conclude” that both the prevalence and the awareness of poor mental health among students has increased in recent decades, citing surveys as well as data on suicides and the use of counselling services.

She also recommends that students be allowed to be simultaneously registered with a doctor’s surgery at home and at university, to avoid them losing support when they are in a different location.

In the report’s foreword, Norman Lamb, a former care minister in the UK government, argues that universities, the government and the NHS had a “collective responsibility to rise to this challenge” of increased mental health demand.

Ruth Caleb, head of counselling at Brunel and chair of the Mental Wellbeing in Higher Education working group, agreed.

“I hope that institutions pay good attention to the recommendations, in particular the need to properly resource counselling and mental health services so that they are able to offer timely and appropriate care before a concern becomes a crisis,” she said.

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