Counselling referral rates among highest in Russell Group

Male students were also half as likely to seek mental health support compared to fe- male students, despite making up marginally more of the University’s students.

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Graph by Simon Hunt

Increased demand has forced Oxford University’s Counselling Service to further reduce the number of counselling sessions per student, with this year seeing an “all-time low” of 3.1 sessions per student according to the University Counselling Service’s annual report.

Counselling referral rates among Oxford undergraduates rank some of the highest in the Russell Group, with female, mixed heritage, and humanities students among those most likely to seek help.

12.3% of the undergraduate body sought the support of the University Counselling Service last year, a marginal increase from 2016-17, and the highest number since the inception of the service. In comparison, 7.1% of the student body at Cambridge used their counselling service in 2016-17.

The report read: “The view of our clini- cal staff team is that we are approaching a watershed with any further reduction in the number of sessions likely to mean the type of counselling will necessarily change into a very different enterprise as has happened in many other university counselling services.

“If the counselling service was to move to becoming a mainly triage service it would undermine the enterprise of brief therapeutic work and vastly reduce the effectiveness to make positive change for each student using the service.”

Oxford University Disabilities Campaign told Cherwell: “Oxford SU Disabilities Campaign are extremely concerned by the significant problems regarding mental health occurring at this university. The Counselling Service’s annual report highlights a reduction in the average number of appointments offered to students which they, and we, find concerning.

“We are working with the SU Sabbatical Officers (particularly Ellie Macdonald, VP WEO and Joe Inwood, President) to consider how a new university-wide mental health strategy can be implemented that effectively considers diversity of student needs.

“There may be a place in this university for a triage-type service to be created, but it is important to recognise that this should not be the responsibility or purpose of the counselling service. Oxford SU Disabilities Campaign encourages senior staff of the central university to commit to supporting the implementation of a comprehensive, university-wide mental health strategy for the sake of student wellbeing.”

According to the report, one in five students seen by the counselling service last year admitted that they were thinking of suspending their studies; however, this number dropped to one in twenty after they had spoken to a counsellor.

Anxiety and low mood continued to represent the two largest presenting needs among students, totalling over 1,150 appointments between undergraduates and postgraduates. Self-identity and academic reasons made up a further fifth of referrals.

Mixed heritage students were among those more likely to seek mental health support, with 14.7% of students from “mixed or multiple ethnic groups” contacting the service. By comparison, 11.5% of white students were referred, and 9.6% of black students.

Students in the Maths, Physics, and Life Sciences division were half a likely to seek help compared to those that studied hu- manities. While those who studied the social sciences represented just over a quarter of referrals.

Male students were also half as likely to seek mental health support compared to female students, despite making up marginally more of the University’s students. The service does not provide any breakdown for gender minorities, though the report also stated this academic year: “[a] particular focus will be to promote awareness and engagement with students from the transgender community, and students from BAME communities.”

Oxford’s undergraduate referral rates continue to rank amongst the highest in the Russell Group, where around 8% of undergraduates are referred on average.

The University of Exeter displayed very similar results to Oxford last year, with 12.3% of their undergraduates being referred, while at Warwick 11.2% of students received support. Cambridge are yet to release their data for 2017-18. Liverpool and Queen’s Belfast were among the Universities where less than 3.5% of the undergraduate body sought support from their university counselling services; however, the way students are referred, and the services offered differs greatly between institutions.

Student perception of the counselling service remains overwhelmingly positive, with 93% of students rating their experience “very good” or “good”; however, the overall satisfaction rate remains slightly below the Russell Group and UK university average. While waiting times for the service increased slightly, students now having to wait on average 8.8 days for an appointment, they remain some of the fastest in the UK. Self- referrals represented roughly half the total number of students seen.

Last year, it was revealed that the Uni- versity spends more on mental health per student than any other UK institution, the bill totalling £1.14 million in 2016-17.

This year, the service is set to continue to widen its network of in-house counsellors, which currently operate at eleven colleges at least one day a week, as well as revamping its Peer Support system.

A spokesperson for the University said: “Our counselling service is of a high standard and follows best practices in the field, and we encourage all students who require support to contact the service.”

A spokesperson for the University of Exeter added:

“It isn’t accurate simply to compare statistics from different universities, as the wellbeing services they provide, how students are referred and the way in which they are offered will vary by institution. ”

“Our priority is for students to have the easiest possible access to our broad range of services, and we operate a triage system, so everyone seeking support is seen as quickly as possible. In recent years we have worked to boost awareness of our support and have invested in extra services.

“As well as traditional, structured psychological therapies we offer a broad range of additional support including single sessions, drop-ins and workshops, all of which allow swifter access to support for more students. Students refer themselves directly to our wellbeing services, and in other institutions this may not always be the case. Statistics about how our wellbeing services are being used will reflect this.”

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