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Lancaster University has been ranked second by the Guardian in terms of the number of students required counseling, beaten only by the University of Glasgow. The number of students submitting the self-referral form for counselling has risen by 127%, and the waiting lists have stretched to six weeks.SCAN spoke to Tom Finnigan, Head of the Student Based Services, who when asked about why there were such long waiting lists, responded: “Over the past three years we have found that we receive more referrals into the Counselling and Mental Health Service during the Lent term than the other terms,” and that “historically this [term] has always been the busiest time of year for students referring themselves.” He also confirmed that “demand for services among students is increasing year on year”, a trend that can be seen in universities across the UK.
According to Finnigan there has been an increase in the “volume and complexity” of the students’ mental difficulties that are being referred to the Counselling and Mental Health Service at the university. The closure of the local NHS Counselling services for mental health issues has also added to the strain put on the University Counselling and Mental Health service as the NHS can no longer act as a replacement students waiting to see a counsellor on campus.
In response to questioning about what the university has done to bring down the waiting list, Mr. Finnigan replied that they have “streamlined administration procedure” to increase efficiency and maximize the use of “all available appointments”. He also told SCAN that a text message reminder system was also set up to prevent students from forgetting to turn up to an appointment or having to cancel the appointment at short notice. Other than that, the department has also “reshuffled the staff” to increase the number of consultation rooms available and rearranged the staff’s calendar to maximize the number of students who can receive consultation. Additionally, the department has introduced two “urgent slots” each day for students who needed to see an adviser urgently.
As well as making an appointment with one of the five counsellors at the university, appointments can be arranged with the Well-being Adviser if the department deems that “practical support” would be beneficial during the time that a student is on the waiting list. Finnigan told SCAN that the waiting list to see a Well-being Adviser is usually less than a week. When asked about the alternatives that students can adopt while they are waiting, Finnigan suggested that students who plan to see the counsellors should go to their GPs as “their first point of contact”, so that the students can get necessary medical help. He also recommended students to try other organisations, such as the Samaritans, or to call the NHS 24-hour hotlines on 111.
SCAN spoke to Tom Fox, VP ( Welfare and Community), and asked for his opinion on the length of the waiting lists. Though Fox recognised that having so many students who were willing to talk about their mental health with an counsellor is a “positive thing”, he believed that “six weeks is an incredibly long time for those suffering from mental health issues, far too long, and this is another example of where what the University wants is different to what students desperately need.” Whilst Finnigan goes into depth about how the University is using its existing resources to combat rising pressures on its counselling service, Fox left not doubts as to why he pushed aside questions accessibility to the current counseling system by saying, “My primary suggestion is simple: more funding and more counsellors.”
However, worryingly this is the same response students received from their VP (Welfare and Community) last October, when Fox stated that there needed to be “a serious discussion with the relevant individuals in the University about how we improve the budget of the well-being service as opposed to push its resources to the absolute maximum.”
With the consistent over-subscription of the counselling service and the apparent lack of movement towards a solution, questions are beginning to be asked about exactly what impact LUSU representatives are capable of having on university policy. Fox may mean well but he is in danger of leaving behind a legacy of inertia over issues that students expect to be within his remit.