The Wellbeing Centre has defended its service provision following numerous student criticisms over waiting times, lack of appropriate specialist support and alleged “underfunding”.
Speaking exclusively to Exeposé, Head of Student Services, Jamie Horsley, described the service as doing “very well in an impossible place”, as it is “being asked to provide services that were never quite the original intention”.
“People are expecting us to be the NHS and better,” she commented, “That’s a whole next level of funding and provision, we’d have to have a replication of an NHS mental health surgery”.
Commenting on current students’ attitudes, Horsley said: “It’s a bit disheartening to see the conflation between NHS and Wellbeing because it’s perpetuating the idea that we can be the NHS and we can’t be.
“The original focus around Wellbeing is around support to study, low-level mental depression, anxiety, transition to university, problems with flatmates and problems with family.” She described the more “serious demand around very severe mental health problems” as “beyond [their] remit”.
Following criticisms levelled in Exeposé’s coverage of eating disorder care, Mark Sawyer, Head of Wellbeing, expressed concern that “it may not even be safe” for the Centre to attempt to provide treatments for higher risk conditions as most of its current support services revolve around talking therapies and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
He continued: “Sometimes the kind of issues that people come with are fairly chronic presentations – they’re quite complicated mental health issues. In those cases, I think our role is to signpost or help students access more specialist support that they need from the NHS. We’re a first port of call.”
Despite criticism over lengthy waiting times, the queue for Wellbeing is currently between 14 and 18 days on average – in line with and often beating the NHS, where the maximum wait is 18 weeks. Sawyer said: “I think there’s a myth surrounding us that if you go to Wellbeing, you’ll never get seen. I don’t think that’s true. If we feel we can’t see you in sex weeks, we’ll put you in touch with another agency.”
Part of Wellbeing acting as a “first port of call”, however, means the Centre are more frequently having to deal with ‘crisis management’.
Horsley told Exeposé: “We are struggling in the very severe cases, they are absorbing a lot of time and resources, I can count a few students who in two days probably used up their nine grand.
“One recent Friday in the past month, Wellbeing had seven students with significant risks. People were called out and that was their whole day; they got nothing else done for any other students. Then people are wondering why they have to wait – we can’t just leave someone in a very severe state, we have to take care of that.”
Nonetheless, the Centre is conscious of how this may impact waiting times and provisions for other students. “I think there is a question to be asked about how, for the students who are not in crisis, we obviously have fewer resources available,” commented Sawyer.
Leah Fuller, President of Mind Your Head Society, echoed these comments. She said: “Their purpose is to support the wellbeing of all students and this should not discriminate against any issue a student is experiencing. Of course for more severe issues students may be referred elsewhere, to receive the best treatment, but the doors of Wellbeing should remain open to all.”
With increased demand – there has been a 60 per cent increase in students using the Centre since 2012 – a widespread perception that the Service is “underfunded” has arisen. In 2013, BodySoc donated £2,000 of society money towards eating disorder support.
However, according to Horsley, “throwing more money” at the issue “is not a solution.”
She confirmed that additional funding from the University has been granted year-on-year for the service and was unable to name another department which has had that same financial injection. Such investment has allowed for an increase in ad-hoc staff including externally-qualified NHS consultants and counsellors employed on temporary bases.
Further investments have also been made into into CBT, a well-evidenced technique for dealing with depression and anxiety, which constitute the majority of the Centre’s admissions, and the creation of Individual Learning Plans, which outline guidance and recommendations for students’ academic schools in relation to their needs.
Despite innovations in NHS outreach, the Wellbeing Centre continues to be constrained by limited space. Horsley acknowledged that expansion of the Centre’s physical presence “should definitely be on the books”.
At present, services are provided from ten rooms at the Wellbeing Centre and six in the Hailey Wing on Streatham Drive, each with a practitioner providing at least five hours of delivery a day. Wellbeing has attempted to increase this provision by expanding appointments into the Forum, but this raised issues with anonymity and was eventually decided against.
Acknowledging that “premises are an issue”, Wellbeing is trying to become more accessible outside of teaching time, now using funding to provide a service three nights a week, although this has been met with varying levels of student interest.
Sawyer explained that the increased demand for complex mental health support at university is a national issue, especially when fewer students disclose mental health as a ‘disability’ than the amounts seeking support making it difficult to plan. In Exeter, just 350 students disclose an illness, while nearly 1,600 students are using the centre each year.
A recent NUS survey stated that eight out of ten students say they experienced mental health issues in the last year, while more than half of respondents who reported their mental illness said they did not seek support.
In February 2016, the government committed an extra £1 billion for mental health care provision by 2021, however this did not cover non-statuory services like Exeter’s Wellbeing Centre. Given that there is no government mandate for universities to even provide Wellbeing support, Exeter’s Centre developed its own framework. Other institutions have since “reached out” to Exeter, according to Sawyer, as they “like our model”.
As well as “building bridges” with NHS practitioners and local counselling services in the city, the new online SilverCloud system has been launched. This offers students concerned about their mental health an opportunity for self-assessment online while they’re waiting for an appointment. “We’re trying to be clever about how students can help themselves,” said Horsley.
Naomi Armstrong, VP Welfare & Diversity, shared Jamie Horsley’s sentiments that the Wellbeing Centre “can never provide the breadth and depth of services that the NHS and other agencies can”.
She added: “I’m working closely with the Wellbeing Centre team to extend and enhance provision where possible and will continue to support both Wellbeing and the Students’ Guild Advice Unit to signpost students to appropriate support when required.
“Details of on-campus and local support services can also be found on the Wellbeing Information Directory at wid.exeterguild.com.”
Sarah Gough, Editor, and Fiona Potigny, News Editor