Academics are not psychotherapists

 

There is a story in the papers this weekend about university students feeling that they are not fully supported by their universities, particularly in terms of mental health support. As per usual, given the 9k fees, students and their parents feel like high quality mental health support should be available to students.

 

However, I would ask students and their families to consider this from the other side.

 

Yes, students who are struggling, who may have a diagnosable mental health problem or who have a diagnosed mental health problem, should be supported to ensure that they have the equaivalent learning and student experience as their peers without a mental health problem.

 

But, what exactly do they expect the university to provide? Psychiatrists? Clinical psychologists? Unlimited access to psychotherapy? Academic staff to provide psychotherapy?

 

What? What do they want? The first three are the purvue of the NHS and universities will never supply services that are duplicated by the NHS.

 

The last one, academics providing psychotherapy, is ILLEGAL. “Clinical psychologist” is a protected professional title and ONLY clinical psychologists and other accredited individuals can provide formal psychotherapy. Any staff member providing psychotherapy to a distressed student is not qualified and risk formal disciplinary procedures. More seriously for the students, psychotherapy can have serious negative impacts on clients even with trained psychotherapists, and this is something many people forget. Not only can meds have deleterious side effects but so can psychotherapy, and psychotherapy provided by untrained staff is much more likely to have deleterious consequences.

 

Academics always fear students with serious mental health problems as our hands are tied and there is little that we can do for them other than to tell them to contact their GP or CMHT. We are here to provide advice about academic issues and provide an ear for students who just want to vent or talk about problems, but in reality, there is very little we can do beyond re-arranging coursework submission, etc.

 

We can, however, provide better Counselling services for students. But Counselling departments are not for diagnosing mental health problems. Student unions need to be more vocal in demanding that Counselling departments receive more adequate funding, although how likely this is with the Tory’s slashing the disabled student allowance we don’t know.

 

What I will say, though, is that if you think the support for students with mental health problems is poor, the support for staff with mental health problems is MUCH worse, and near on non-existent. Counselling services for staff have been outsourced to private providers, and realistically, counselling isn’t necessary going to be sufficient for staff with serious or complex mental health problems.

 

Also, while universities DO bend over backwards to put in adjustments for students with disabilities, including mental health problems, and the students have their own Disability Office, the adjustments and support put in place for staff with mental health problems is pretty much non-existent. Staff don’t have a Disability Office. While students may have deadlines altered due to mental health difficulties, staff requesting such adjustments are seen as being a burden. The best such staff have is their union and Occupational Health. And, OH are there to protect the university not the staff member. Getting adjustments out of OH is like pulling teeth, and this is largely due to the very unhelpful doctors who work on the service who overrule adjustments that practice nurses’ suggest. If you want adjustments you really need to push for them. And, if you are unhappy with your treatment, you have to speak to your line manager, HR, OH, or your union. There is no one-stop-shop place for staff, such as a staff disability office, unlike students, so having adjustments put in place and making your university abide by them is really up to you.

 

So, yes, we need to do more to support students, but in many case our hands are tied, and even the best service is not going to be on par with what the NHS can provide. All we can realistically do is modify academic work load. On the other hand, staff with mental health difficulties continuously get screwed over and have next to zero support in comparison to what is in place for students. Policies to support students are plentiful in university governance documentation; there is next to none for staff. Count yourself lucky.

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