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Counselling should do more

The university counselling service has some clear and serious faults, argues Jemima Murphy

My main emotional outlet at fifteen – in lieu of talking to my friends, family, or, er, anyone – was rock climbing. The routes at my local centre were set once a month, and I could hurl myself at a blunt rock face every Saturday for an hour without raising any eyebrows.

The hardest route took me weeks to complete, and left me with a sprained wrist. If I’d had more time, or resources, or energy, I probably could have completed the challenge without injuring myself in the process. It’s taken me years to recognise and apply these lessons when taking care of my mental health.

With this in mind, I had no intentions of using the university counselling service when I came to Oxford. My anxiety at this point had become a minor and manageable thing, which in any case felt too broad to be tackled over a fixed number of sessions.

However, halfway through Michaelmas I had a traumatic experience, and over the vacation I decided it might be worth exploring the university’s support services. Unlike my anxiety, this wasn’t a problem spanning years, but an obstacle, with a distinct aftermath, which I felt reasonably confident that I could overcome, and so I set about making an appointment. This process is where the counselling service excels: fire off an email, fill out a form, accept an appointment, fill out another form. The steps are manageable, and applying in the vacation gave me the advantage of a minimal wait time which leaves many waiting until the end of term, forcing others into private therapy.

The service itself is a more complex creature, and the phrase “lack of resources” is less than groundbreaking for anyone acquainted with mental health services, not only in Oxford but across the country. By my second session we were discussing my options for private therapy, in order to secure more long term support; I was discouraged from pursuing my options with the university EMDR service because of the lengthy waiting times.

It was also becoming readily apparent that I was not experiencing a simple, four session problem. I suspect very few people do.

I approached the system feeling like I had a hit roadblock, and was ready to emotionally invest in the service’s four sessions in order to overcome it.

In reality, it was more like being sat in front of a mountain, and trying to tunnel through it with a teaspoon.

With the sessions so carefully numbered, there is a pressure not to use them too quickly. There are no allowances for good behaviour, or a sliding scale for bigger problems.

If any part of me naively hope they might stretch to an extra appointment or two for something serious, it was rapidly disabused. This in itself is disheartening -the rigidity of the appointment structure can feel like it’s minimising the problems students are bringing so that we feel like we’re overreacting instead of like we’re not being accommodated.

To counter this, we spread my sessions over fortnight periods, unravelling my trauma in carefully controlled explosions before trying to pile the toothpaste back into the tube.

At no point did anyone ask if trying to overcome sexual assault in under four hours seemed challenging. Quite quickly the object of the sessions shifted from overcoming the assault to merely addressing it, and this adjustment brought its own tensions with it. Repeatedly bringing upsetting memories to the forefront of my mind had consistent repercussions outside of my allotted counselling time, and we frequently needed the full 50 minutes just to explore the problem fully, let alone consider possible coping mechanism or how I was going to get better.

Frankly, the system is brutal. A stop- watch is hovered above the recovery process, and it’s terrifying. There’s simply no recognition of the role that time plays in aiding recovery from mental health issues; the appointments are drawn out over weeks at a time with each session offering a sharp fifty minutes to explode and subsequently repackage whatever needs to be addressed.

When my third appointment ended in floods of tears (my own, not the counsellor’s), I was kindly offered to take some time for myself in whichever of the building’s toilets.

Alternatively, my counsellor gently suggested I could sit in the waiting room until I felt ready to head back to college.

The system has some clear and serious fault lines. The lengthy waiting times prevent many from even requesting an appointment, the number of sessions drastically limit their utility, and ultimately often serve to scratch the surface of existing conflicts without providing the time and resources needed to resolve them. These aren’t issues unique to Oxford, and these concerns are comprehensively echoed across university and NHS systems alike. Colleges can pick up some of the slack, and Jesus and Keble have hired onsite counselors for their students.

Despite my frustrations, both structural and personal, I will continue to champion therapy; to suggest it to friends who are struggling, and pursue it for my own needs. I would rather hack away at the mountain with a teaspoon than sit in front of it doing nothing at all. However, it seems like there should be a way to do it sustainably, and without risking further harm in the process. Asking the university to meaningfully invest in an obviously struggling system should not seem like an unreasonable request, but after 2 months of propping myself up against a struggling counselling service, any request is made to feel overwhelming.

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