Published on February 12, 2014 | by Dorothy Spencer


Mental health counselling system stretched to limit

ALN investigates how cuts to funding in support services are affecting students with mental health problems, as demand for counselling stretches the system to its limit.

Student suffering depression

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for males aged 18-24 in the UK. [Clelia Carbonari]

Your student years are often called ‘the best years of your life’ – but being in your twenties and trying to ‘find yourself’, with the added pressures of studying, leaving home, and managing money, does not always bring about the sort of euphoria one may have hoped for.

A survey conducted by the NUS found that 20 per cent of higher education students considered themselves to have a mental health problem, while 13 per cent said they had experienced suicidal thoughts.

This is reflected in the huge rise in students seeking counselling at university, with demand rising by a third on UK campuses since 2008.

One might assume this would lead to an expansion in support services, but most universities have experienced the opposite with cuts to funding resulting in redundancies and reduced services.

Overall, student numbers are continuing to grow, while rising debt and fewer employment opportunities are increasing the pressure, and may be adding to higher rates of mental health problems.

Waiting lists

Tara*, a 20-year-old LCC student, sought help from UAL after an attempted overdose in November 2013.

Tara is still on the waiting list for counselling. She said: “The communication between services has been very limited and has caused unnecessary stress and complications for me as a student to receive the help I need.”

Denise Meyer, counselling psychologist and project manager for the Students Against Depression website, has said: “The increase in those seeking counselling more recently might in part be a positive sign that mental health is steadily becoming less of a taboo subject and more young people are aware of counselling and how it might help.”

“Cuts to student counselling services at a time of greater demand are disappointing and irresponsible.” Denise Meyer

She added: “Cuts to student counselling services at a time of greater demand are disappointing and irresponsible.”

While we may be making positive steps towards removing the stigmatism attached to mental health problems, it still takes many people a lot of time and courage to admit they need help; so are we in danger of pushing people back down the hole they are trying to get out of by leaving them waiting for support?

Victoria Wallis, a student at Brunel University who suffers from severe depression and anxiety, said: “I can already see improvements to awareness of mental health around campus, however the services are beginning to oversubscribe. I now have to wait about three or four weeks to see the mental health adviser and, to many, those weeks are crucial.”

Mental heath covers a wide range of conditions, including depression, schizophrenia, OCD, eating disorders and psychosis. The most common of these is depression, with between eight and 12 per cent of the population experiencing depression in any given year.


A pair of hands holding pills.

Many students are becoming reliant on anti-depressants as the are put onto long waiting lists for talking psychological therapy. [Clelia Carbonari]

It is still something of a taboo topic, but recent coverage in the media of high profile sufferers such as Stephen Fry – who revealed he had on more than one occasion attempted to take his own life – has helped open up to public debate an otherwise dark and quiet corner of the human experience.

Depression has always been hard to empathise with from the perspective of someone who has not experienced it before; it does not register in the same way as cancer or heart disease would, a symptomless – at least physically – affliction that can be just as debilitating and dangerous.

Charities and mental health organisations have long been fighting for equivalence between physical and mental health, but it does not seem to have yet been achieved.

You would not expect to be turned away from hospital with a broken limb, but half of young people who go to A&E units after attempting suicide or self-harming are not given a psychiatric assessment or any help for psychiatric problems.

This can have extreme consequences when patients who display worrying signs of suicidal intent – such as ligature marks on their necks – are discharged, only to later take their own lives.

While I have heard from many students in the UK that their campus services are running at maximum capacity with wait times averaging 11 days, this is still considerably lower than the NHS.

Access to talking therapies – often a highly effective method of treatment for those suffering with depression, anxiety and eating disorders – come with long waiting lists, with one in ten people waiting over a year to receive treatment, and only half of anxiety and depression sufferers who asked for help last year actually receiving any treatment.

Drug reliance

Instead, your GP is more likely to issue you with a prescription for a course of anti-depressants. While many people find this helpful, they are best used in conjunction with some form of psychological therapy, and the concern is that numbers of our population will become reliant on drugs such as Prozac to stay well.

Lauren Bridgeman, a student at LCC, has been taking anti-depressants for two years now and feels she has “definitely become reliant on them, especially as my stress levels rise with the third year of uni.”

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 put mental health on a par with physical health and the Government reiterated this commitment through its current mental health strategy, No Health Without Mental Health. Despite this display of commitment, the NHS has faced cuts to its mental health budgets

One of the country’s leading psychiatrists recently warned that mental health services are “unsafe and in crisis.”

Figures received by the BBC following a freedom of information request show that mental health trusts in England had their funding cut by 2.36 per cent in real terms over the past two years, while one of the country’s leading psychiatrists recently warned that mental health services are “unsafe and in crisis.”

This is coupled with a huge lack of psychiatric beds – a freedom of information request made jointly by the BBC and Community Care found that bed capacity was on average running at 101 per cent, with at least 2,000 psychiatric bed closures in the last two years.

Speaking to The Guardian, one doctor said in some cases she would section patients who did not necessarily meet the requirements, as this is the only way to force bed provision.

Because depression is an ‘invisible’ illness, it is harder to diagnose and treat than more visible, physical problems. The NHS is clearly overstretched and under financed, but cuts to mental health budgets seem a false economy that could create a number of human time bombs, who have to reach crisis point before they receive proper attention.

Rising suicide rate

Student holding anti-depressant drugs

Reaching people in the early stages of mental illness might reduce long term health costs [Benjamin Bishop]

Reaching people in the early stages of mental illness might keep them in jobs or education, keep kids with their parents, and avoid the more costly running of crisis care.

This is all against a background of growing concern about the rising suicide rate in Britain. The number of students who took their own lives in England and Wales rose by 50 per cent between 2007 and 2011 – the problem is particularly prevalent among males, with suicide being one of the leading causes of death among men aged 18-24 in the UK.

When you pause to consider that for a moment, it is a truly terrifying statistic. If you are not going to be hit by a bus, get cancer, or be taken down by dodgy legal highs, one of the most likely ways for you to die – if you are a male in that age range – is by your own hand.

It corresponds that men are more reluctant to access help or speak to anyone about concerns surrounding their mental health. Two-thirds of the people accessing counselling on the NHS for anxiety and depression are women.

Human cost

The NUS Scotland report Silently Stressed found that the most common reason students did not access support was stigma surrounding mental health issues, with some students feeling,”a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about approaching mental health support.”

It seems that depression is still in some way associated with failure. One million people across the globe die by suicide each year – that is one suicide every 40 seconds, although it is thought that the true figure is probably higher, because in some cultures the act of suicide is seen as so shameful it is disguised as another cause of death.

It translates that more people die by suicide each year than murder and war combined. The huge human cost of mental illness becomes clear when you consider that 90 per cent of suicide victims suffer from a psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

The peak age for serious mental health illnesses to develop – like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – is during the university years, between ages 18-25. Early intervention can make a huge difference to the progression of an illness.

This is why it is so important for university services to have well-run, well-staffed services on campus, to keep up with changing demand. With NHS services highly oversubscribed, for young people university services can be a lifeline.

We also need to encourage an environment of openness within our universities if we are to truly tackle depression, an illness that thrives in silence. Mostafa Rajaai, culture and diversity officer at SUARTS agrees, stating: “The main thing that needs to be done to erode the stigma is to openly talk about it. We need more people talking about their experiences, but this would not happen until we establish a safe environment.”

*Name has been changed.


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