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“The system needs to change” – Inside the University’s Mental Health Crisis

Over-subscribed and under-resourced – a mental health service struggling to cope.

This is the picture that emerges from conversations with students across the University of Edinburgh.

Not that poor student mental health is a recent phenomenon, or one specific to Edinburgh.

A 2017 Institute for Public Policy research report found that the number of students recording mental health problems rose five-fold between 2006 and 2015. Existing trends came to a head when COVID-19 threw the world into shutdown and all learning moved online. A Student Minds survey in 2021 revealed that 74 per cent of students felt that their mental health had taken a hit during the pandemic.

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And yet, the University of Edinburgh is notorious for performing badly when it comes to student satisfaction. The latest Which? 2023 University rankings placed it 118th out of 123. Over the summer, the men’s mental health charity HUMEN compiled the first University Mental Health League Table, putting Edinburgh at 61st out of 80 universities (although it should be noted that both Universities UK and Student Minds dispute the methodology used to calculate its findings).

Emily* (not her real name), is a third-year student at the University of Edinburgh. She told The Student about her experience trying to get an appointment with the counselling service after a “traumatic” event which took place during her first year.

She said:

“I was told to wait three weeks for an appointment, and eventually I was given one within that time frame. However, I realised soon after that I couldn’t make the time that they had given me.

“Instead of being offered an alternative slot, I was placed back at the bottom of the waiting list for another three weeks.

“I was in such a desperate situation and the way the university responded was not good enough at all.”

Another student described being left on the waiting list for a counselling appointment for five months.

“My anxiety made my attendance at tutorials so poor that my grade dropped below 50 per cent.

“I didn’t know what to do because I still hadn’t been given a counselling appointment, so I emailed my personal tutor.

“She put me in touch with a Student Support Officer, who basically just sent me an email with a bunch of links to private counselling.”

According to the counselling service’s own figures, between 2017 and the 2021/22 academic year, the number of students waiting more than 4 weeks for an initial appointment rose from 1 per cent to 27 per cent.

A spokesperson for the University of Edinburgh’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Society (WellSoc), a student-led organisation focused on mental wellbeing, told The Student that the problem is partly one of funding.

“The money is there, but it isn’t being put into mental health support. People are constantly asking us to signpost them towards external resources, because the university’s provision is just not great.”

According to the university’s own published data, the number of students accessing the counselling service increased by 46 per cent, from 3,004 in 2017 to 4,397 in 2021/22. During the same period, the budget went up by just 11 per cent.

Waiting times are one area where many students feel that the university falls short of its obligations to its students. Another is the quality of support available. One student described their experience using the service as “literally useless”.

“I got referred by my personal tutor last February. The person that I spoke to didn’t offer me any helpful advice, beyond the classic stuff like ‘stay calm.’”

Something in the current system needs to change. Just having a meeting every now and then where nothing productive is spoken about can actually make things worse, because you end up thinking ‘this is so pointless.’

At the very least there should be more communication between the staff providing support and the students using it. I know that it is a national problem, but you would think that a university as prestigious as Edinburgh would have more knowledge about how to deal with these things.

The Student put some of these figures to Andy Shanks, the Director of Student Wellbeing. When asked how he plans to address student concerns, he responded:

“Over the years there has been an increase in the funding levels for the Student Counselling Service to ensure we can respond to demand, and at this point funding is likely to be requested for the forthcoming annual Planning Round for 2023/24.

“The Student Counselling Service budget figures do not include the University’s investment in the Togetherall and SilverCloud platforms for the past three years, with both supports well-used by students each year.

“There is no backlog of students waiting for counselling currently. So far this year academic year, 76 per cent of students have been offered a first appointment within one week of referring.

“We will continue to engage with students to identify how best we can shape and develop our services to support students most effectively.”

Yet the spokesperson for WellSoc maintained that a radical change in approach is needed if the university is serious about improving student mental wellbeing.

“Reaching out for help when you’re struggling is already so difficult… there are so many hurdles in the way of accessing the mental health services, because the approach just isn’t compassionate enough.

“The university should be focused not only on investing more but on trying to understand their students’ needs better and using that to make the mental health services more intuitive to use.”

Image ”University of Edinburgh: Wellbeing Centre” by kaysgeog is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.