The University’s failing counselling and mental health services

Between a limited number of counselling sessions and referrals to third-party providers, students can sometimes feel lost amid the need for better funding and support from all levels of government.

Photo: The University of Sydney

Any student that has had to call up the University to access counselling services will first be told these words: “Just letting you know we only offer short-term therapy sessions, between 1 to 6 sessions”. 

Anyone who has had to go through counselling knows that 1-6 months of counselling is next to useless, especially for long-term mental health conditions, which many students who reach out for these services are more than likely already suffering from. This shows the underfunding of the University’s counselling that more long-term support cannot be supplied on campus — USyd being the most accessible location for students to access. 

The solution to this problem is, according to the University, outsourcing to third parties: “If you require longer-term support, a team member will assist you to find an external provider”. In essence, USyd is saying that there is a pipeline from the University to third-party counselling services. The problem is that many students slip through the cracks of this pipeline. 

An anonymous student, Alex*, told me that they had “no to little help in getting outside support”.

“I had to go on the waiting list myself and I have been struggling to find another service,” they said. 

The other problem with transferring to third-party providers is that you start from square one with the new therapist — thus making the University counselling service at best a questionnaire thatpassies on problems to another service. At worst, it’s a waste of time, making students feel worthless and abandoned. 

Others say that it is very easy to fall off the radar with these services. In another anonymous testimony, Morgan* told me that mental health follow-ups were often inconsistent. “I missed one session […] they called once and then didn’t follow up at any time […] the University forgot about me and left me on the side of the road.”. 

Some students have even been placed on waiting lists which has caused them to give up. 

“I applied for the services and waited two months before just giving up,” says another anonymous student. The transfers would be helpful in theory if there wasn’t a larger issue facing Australia’s mental health service. The issue is that there simply are not enough suppliers or counsellors to meet demand. There are especially not enough for young people, 20 per cent of which need mental health support. 

Those who need long-term support only get 12 sessions covered by Medicare which means that those from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot afford the recommended additional mental health support sessions. An alternative offered by the University is its “Psychology clinic” which supplies therapy for adults, with students paying $10 per session. This sounds like a great deal, but what’s the catch? 

USyd states that the clinic is staffed by less experienced professionals. “Our trainee clinical psychologists, [work] under the close guidance of their clinical psychology supervisors,” the website reads. This means that the best long-term psychology option available for students is to be with a trainee psychologist. This is a good option for most, but some do not feel comfortable or feel their cases may be too complex for a trainee psychologist, but it is the best option for students who can’t afford to pay out. 

Now, these services sound great, but the biggest hurdle to accessing these services is knowing they exist in the first place. 

Many students don’t know about these services and never get referrals to them. Accordingly, the University is failing to help students with their mental health, especially when youth mental health problems are growing and access to these services is a necessity. There are too few counselling services, the USyd-to-third-party services pipeline is leaking students, and the best long-term affordable option is to be looked at by a trainee psychologist, which doesn’t inspire much hope.

The University will need to increase funding and expand these services so students can stay in the loop until they can be transferred. Simultaneously, the Federal Government needs to help cover student’s psychological needs through Medicare or the NDIS. Until then, unless these measures are actioned, it looks like student mental health at USyd will remain inadequate.

In response to the concerns raised, Sydney University recommends that students reach put to its Counselling Service or consult external psychological services:

“Our students’ wellbeing is our prime concern. We urge any of our students who might need support to seek it – whether from our own Counselling Service or from sources outside the University.”

“We offer up to six sessions per calendar year, and most students achieve great clinical outcomes in this time. A small proportion require referrals to specialise services for more intensive or ongoing therapy.

“In these instances, we most commonly refer students to a GP for a referral to a psychologist under a mental health care plan (Medicare), to Headspace, or to a specialised treatment program (for example for eating disorders, addiction or psychiatric care).”

* name has been changed for anonymity

Update: The University of Sydney’s comments was added to this article following its publication as part of Disabled Honi.