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Edinburgh calls in support to meet student counselling demand

Image: Su Hongjia [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Scottish university pilots use of external provider to ease ‘continued pressure’ on counselling services

Student requests for counselling and wellbeing services at the University of Edinburgh have grown so significantly that the university has piloted the use of a third-party provider to help meet demand.

According to a paper published on the university’s website, demand for counselling services “is high and growing, leading to continued pressure” on the student counselling service. Around 3,500 students, representing more than 10 per cent of the student body, access the service each year.

In the paper, dated 26 April and published on 7 June, the university said students who pose a risk to themselves or others are offered an initial assessment within two weeks, with those prioritised for counselling offered their first appointment within another two weeks. 

For non-urgent cases, the waiting time is between one and five weeks for an initial assessment, and four and 10 weeks from that assessment to the first appointment.

Wider concerns

The university said it was “piloting the use of a third-party provider to add additional capacity at peak times”, as well as recruiting five more full-time counsellors to its team of more than 17 full-time equivalent mental health staff.

“These initiatives will help reduce current waiting times, which do still compare very favourably with waiting times for NHS provision, but are nonetheless a source of some frustration to students,” the university wrote in the report.

Although the University of Edinburgh would not comment on whether the rise in demand is linked to students’ experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are widespread concerns that students’ mental health has worsened during months of lockdowns.

According to a survey by mental health charity Mind in June 2020, almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of university students said their mental health had become worse, and in December 2020 a separate survey by the National Union of Students found that 29 per cent of those who said their mental health had deteriorated had sought help.

‘Risks’ of external services

Leigh Spanner, interim head of engagement at Student Minds, said any new support service used by universities “needs to have evidence behind it, be tested by clinical and importantly students themselves to see if it meets their needs and is a helpful service”.

“External support for university students can be helpful but only if they work alongside and supplement and support, not replace existing university and NHS services. We need to ensure that universities and the NHS have adequate funding to provide students with the mental health support that they require,” Spanner added.

Meanwhile, King’s College London senior psychology lecturer Nicola Byrom said that although the use of a third-party provider to ease pressure on counselling services “may be a very sensible strategic move to address a short-term problem”, there were “risks” that using external services could “further reduce the flow of general aggregated information from the counselling service back to the university…which could be used to support more preventative interventions”.

“The hazard of this approach is that the support that students are looking for is often fundamentally linked to their university experience, so you need to have counsellors who really understand the student experience and, ideally, the university landscape,” she said.

Research Professional News has approached the University of Edinburgh for comment.