A big part of my role as a Disability Liaison Officer is talking to and supporting advisers in my department, and liaising with other colleagues across the university. I am also in contact with a lot of students who have used and continue to access the support available at Student Support Services. There is a familiar pattern to all responses that people have given me about their experiences of SSS. The following are some of my thoughts about where we are and where we need to get to if we want to improve mental health and wellbeing provision at UEA. I write this in the spirit of openness and in the hope that we can begin a university wide dialogue with staff, students and the executive team to find a new way forward in dealing with mental health and wellbeing provision at UEA.
We all acknowledge how hard the staff in Student Support Services work and work in the best interests of the students they seek to help. Staff I have worked with have been incredibly helpful and are passionate about helping students. However, it is clear to all staff and students who engage with SSS that pressures on staff have reached intolerable levels and that SSS is at breaking point. Simply put; they do not have the funding or resources to deal with the increase in demand and the mental health crisis on campus.
To deal with the increased demand, the University introduced a system with significant flaws. Students requesting support now fill in a triage form that is appraised within 24 hours. Students are told they will receive a response within 72 hours, but we are aware of a number of cases when this deadline has been missed. This triage system gives the appearance of engagement, but actually produces no tangible outcome for the student, many of whom are eventually given an appointment months after their initial request for support.
We are told that these forms are triaged according to need, but the system is impersonal and opaque. For some students, filling in a form may help them focus on the kinds of help they want and need. For other students, they need to talk to someone face to face in order to feel that they are being listened too. Metal health is complex and a one-size fits all model of accessing support is not sufficient and in some cases will act as a barrier to seeking much-needed help.
It is clear that staff in SSS are under pressure, with academic staff reporting that their attempts to chase appointments for advisees have revealed that delays are often being caused by staff sickness and colleagues leaving the University at short notice. Students have also reported being seen by staff in SSS who are not specialists in the areas they have sought help. We also know students appointments are being cancelled at the last minute, leaving them in considerable distress.
Simply put it is not clear to students or advisers what can be reasonably expected of the SSS at UEA. It is understandable why SSS say they are not a ‘crisis service’ and that in some cases students should seek help external to the university. Furthermore, it is clear that the university and SSS cannot solve all of the mental health problems students face. Nor should the wider contexts that have resulted in an increase in mental health in society at large be ignored. But the University must recognise it has a duty of care to students (and staff) and that they cannot claim student fees, whilst offering mental health and wellbeing services that are ineffective. Local community services and charities are also incredibly stretched and are not adequately funded to support the large increase in vulnerable adults that a university the size of UEA brings to Norwich.
The pressure that this situation puts on academic staff and support staff as well as those who are in daily contact with students in their accommodation must be considered. It is therefore very worrying that recent statements from SSS claim they are ‘training academics’. We should not be against academic staff having mental health first aid training and advisers should be educated about various mental health conditions that may affect their advisees, but there is a very big difference between being aware and being a qualified therapist or mental health professional. This is often what students want and when they do not get that support from SSS they come back to their advisor for help. When colleagues have raised this with SSS, the burden this places on staff is not adequately recognised. Colleagues are told to ‘know your professional boundaries, stop the conversation and point them to SSS or their GP’. But if we do this we know they will often be lost in the system and without support for weeks or months. It is very hard for staff to simply switch off and not worry about students they see on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. It is also very hard for this not to have serious impacts on the mental health and well being of staff being put in this position.
What is needed is an open dialogue between staff, students, and the university about what support services are needed on campus. We need the Executive Team to listen to the concerns of staff in SSS and all staff that work with students on a daily basis. We need to restore the faith of staff and students in the support that SSS can offer before this relationship is irrevocably broken.
We cannot have a SSS that adapts to the funding model it is given. We must have a SSS that adapts to student need and is funded accordingly. This is not a finger pointing exercise. It is about realising there are huge challenges and we need to come together to find solutions that will work. After all, when staff raise concerns about mental health provision on campus it is a demonstration of how much staff at UEA care about the wellbeing of their students and colleagues. When we see something is not working we must work together to find solutions and not get lost in hierarchy and defensiveness. We must act, and we must act now.
Mark Hobbs, Vice President UCU@UEA.
**I encourage any colleagues who have been affected by recent events to contact the staff counselling services (https://portal.uea.ac.uk/student-support-service/wellbeing/staff-counselling) or the Education Support Partnership (https://www.ucu.org.uk/educationsupportpartnership) for support. Please do get in touch with the UCU office (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any comments or concerns that you may have on this issue.**