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Bristol University students 'wait the longest' for mental health support, FoI reveals

Students wait an average of more than 50 days for mental health counselling. Credit: ITV News

Students at the University of Bristol wait three times longer to access mental health services than the national average, according to new statistics.

A Freedom of Information (FoI) Act request by mental health campaigner Sir Norman Lamb, of the Liberal Democrats, found the average waiting time to access counselling at the university in 2018/19 was 52 days.

This figure is significantly higher than the national average, which the FoI suggested was 15.7 days.

In response, a University of Bristol spokesperson said changes made last year to its counselling service had reduced the average waiting time for therapeutic support to fewer than four weeks.

Key findings by the FoI:

  • An increase in funding for mental health counselling services at the University of Bristol
  • A decrease in the number of full time employed counsellors at the university
  • A sharp increase in referral rates

At a panel discussion at the University of Bristol, former Health Minister Sir Norman Lamb called for a university mental health charter and for the University of Bristol to make a 'zero suicide' pledge.

These figures are unacceptable. Clearly some students are being failed by their universities. The lack of appropriate mental health provision at some universities is intolerable.

When the prevalence of mental ill-health among students is increasing, it is completely unacceptable that some universities are cutting funding.

We should be seeing sustained increases – after all, mental health support has historically been way underfunded.

– Sir Norman Lamb

Many of the 110 universities which responded to the FoI said they did not record all relevant key statistics, such as their budgets or waiting times.

Universities also said they could not deal with the issue of mental health alone and were already working on a voluntary mental health charter.

Liberal Democrat candidate for Bristol West, James Cox, added:

Bristol University has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons around mental health. Today's research will not help, but I hope it will act as a catalyst for reform and change.

I am joining calls for the university - and all universities - to promote Sir Norman's charter and to make a zero suicide pledge.

– James Cox

In response, a University of Bristol spokesperson said students' mental health and well-being is a "key priority".

The mental health and wellbeing of our students is a key priority.

Our whole-institution approach aims to support our students’ wellbeing during their transition into university life and throughout their time with us, as well helping them build life skills and resilience to cope with the pressures they face.

Our strategy launched at the start of the year and was developed in partnership with Universities UK (UUK) and Public Health England. It follows best-practice recommendations and the framework outlined by UUK.

In 2018 we introduced Wellbeing Advisers into our Schools and Faculties and a Residential Life model for students which sees similar individuals embedded in our residential villages providing support on a 24/7 basis.

For many years we have operated student support services including an on-campus GP practice, counselling and services that specifically support our most vulnerable students.

Last year we made a change to the way we provide counselling support to reduce waiting times by introducing an online assessment to speed up the process and ensuring we can focus on offering therapeutic sessions.

From January 2019, the average waiting time for therapeutic support has been less than 4 weeks. In addition, the new Residential Life and Student Wellbeing Services have provided individual support to over 5,000 students, normally within a few days of it being requested.

In terms of staffing, the Counselling Service has in the past used additional sessional counsellors to support permanent staff at particularly busy times of the year – we added more than 1,800 additional hours of counselling last academic year, as well as group drop-in sessions, workshops and self-help resources.

We have however recruited additional permanent staff into the team as well as three mental health advisors who can help our students with more complex support when required.

– University of Bristol spokesperson