30 Oct 2019

Complaints over University of Canterbury counselling service prompt changes

6:50 am on 30 October 2019

Criticism about unprofessional counselling and lengthy wait-lists has prompted the University of Canterbury to consider changes to its Health Centre.

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Photo: 123rf

Student magazine Canta says an overwhelming number of students have been leaving the free on-campus counselling feeling worse-off, after being told to try harder to get better, or feeling dismissed before they're ready to stop counselling.

After writer Frankie Desmond had her own "negative experience" at the counselling service, she asked other students to share their thoughts on it, good or bad.

One person shared a positive story but 12 others described feeling judged, dismissed or uncomfortable during recent counselling sessions, including a woman driven to panic attacks by her treatment.

"One person who requested a female counsellor ... was told she would get a female counsellor, she walked in and it was a male counsellor. People have had very inappropriate quotes [made] when they went in to deal with statutory rape. People were told 'you're not trying hard enough, try harder to get better', that kind of thing," she said.

This year University of Canterbury students paid a collective $499,000 for five full-time Health Centre counsellors, extra staff during exam times, and a triage counsellor being trialled this year.

That's just more than $30 per student for the short to medium-term care, but some who spoke to Canta are now choosing to fork out for off-campus treatment.

RNZ spoke to an international student paying $110 a session, after three-week waits between appointments at the university's Health Centre last year, and being unable to see the same counsellor in consecutive visits.

The student - who asked not to be named - said the counsellors weren't unprofessional but the system failed to provide robust support at a time when his mental health was impeding his studies.

"It feels like a one-time thing, so it's not very helpful over the long term... I guess they have to go through a lot of students. It seems like, from the times I went, I got some help but it was nothing I could get out of having a regular counsellor," he said.

In a written statement, the university said it had upped the Health Centre's resources each year since 2017 and students who declare urgent needs are seen by nurses or GPs if there's no counsellors readily available.

But other students RNZ spoke to said they're still waiting four or five weeks for appointments, which is nearly half a semester.

A university spokesperson also detailed other changes being made because of feedback and was urging the complainants to come forward.

A spokesperson said they hoped to make the triage counsellor permanent, to make sure students on the waitlist were safe and provide interim assistance, and that counsellors were designing a questionnaire to gather anonymous feedback from every client.

The Health Centre's medical director, Joan Allardyce, told Canta the criticism was disappointing and surprising, as it didn't match feedback given directly to the health centre.

Student unions respond

University of Canterbury Students' Association president Sam Brosnahan said it was worrying to hear individual accounts of the service being unprofessional, or less than the expected level of care.

He said surveys by the university indicated 83 percent of students were "satisfied or neutral" about the counselling service.

"But it's important to see individual concerns in this context," he said.

Mr Brosnahan said other survey results showed student mental health and well-being were one of students' top priorities overall.

At a recent forum with the Vice-Chancellor, students asked if the University of Canterbury had enough resources to respond to the growing mental health needs of the university community.

"UC's response was that the growing challenge for them is not so much the amount of service available ... but the effectiveness of services," he said.

He welcomed proposed changes to feedback mechanisms and said the union has been supportive of increased provision for counselling resource at the Health Centre.

Acting President of the New Zealand Union of Students' Associations, Caitlin Barlow-Groome, said it was not massively surprising to hear the issues being raised at the University of Canterbury because the union had seen complaints from health services across the country.

"I think the expectations for counsellors at universities should be the same as all counsellors. You shouldn't make anyone feel judged or dismissed or uncomfortable at all," she said.

She said when it came to the topic of student counselling, there was always room for improvement.

"I have heard of decreased wait times [across the country] but that still means there's wait times," she said.

Students can approach the university's Student Care service for alternate support options.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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