The inadequacy of USyd mental health services

The university is failing to meet its duty of care and provision of student mental health services.

Content note: this article discusses mental health and sexual assault

Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence noted at the first Academic Board Meeting this year that it is “out of the Education Budget to run University health services”. University representatives reaffirmed that while “the University is not required to provide health services”, they believe provision of these services is important for student welfare. It seems that while the University may strive to provide students with education and professional development, without adequate resources provided to support student well-being, USyd is failing to address crucial needs of students.

Currently, USyd offers Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) as the main avenue for students who require mental health support and offer individual counselling, educational workshops, and  self-help resources. Reports show that rates of CAPS utilisation  peak during assessment periods, notably in Weeks 7, 11 and 13 of the semester.

Meanwhile, over 98 per cent of university students reported mental health issues impacting their studies across the nation, yet only 27 per cent of respondents utilised  their on-campus counselling services. This suggests that the majority of students believe  services like CAPS are not supportive enough, and   prevent them visiting more regularly.   The gap stops personal, academic or psychological issues that arise during semester that may not be sufficiently addressed.

The Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015 section 2.3 stipulates that the nature and extent of support services available should be advised by students’ mental health, disability and wellbeing needs. However, findings from USyd’s Student Wellbeing Report 2014 suggest that the student support needs in place are not being adequately fulfilled.

The report concluded that USyd currently fails to meet both national and international standards in providing  student support services. According to the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching Student Experience Survey, USyd ranked at the bottom of Go8 universities at 58.7 per cent, well below the national average of 72 per cent. The next contender for lowest rated university student support services, the University of Melbourne, had a significantly higher rating at 63.5 per cent. Furthermore, the report found that there was a significant absence of training and support for front-line staff to best support the mental health needs and well-being of students.

Despite substantial evidence drawn from University Student Wellbeing Groups, the University claims that its current services are adequate. When asked how current mental health services could be improved, a USyd representative responded that they aim to “introduce mechanisms to more accurately track the extent to which services meet students’ needs”. While USyd stated they “welcome dialogue with student representatives” to guarantee they are best meeting the emerging needs of students, the University does not appear to have made significant changes to increase the provision of mental health support services to take on board previous recommendations from recently completed reports on student well-being.

The Vice Chancellor  has since revealed that post the  work of the Student Wellbeing group, the University proposed a mental health service model that outsources student health services to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA).

Backlash to the proposal was swift. It implied the University was distancing itself from  the provision of necessary mental health services. Moving mental health services off-campus to the RPA would also involve greater travelling time and commitment for students, which could be another major deterrent for those who already find it difficult to seek out advice from counsellors in the first place.

Ultimately, the University said that the outsourcing of services to the RPA was not approved due to already significant limits in public health funding and substantial delays in accessing support through the public health system.

However, increased connection between USyd and RPA for students with “acute mental health distress or those seeking support services for rape or sexual assault” has been encouraged.

Meanwhile, the University believes it would be more beneficial to focus on campus services that “ensure appropriate and timely on-campus assistance” to minimise any delay in support and increase targeted education and wellbeing programs to address student needs.

While students may be somewhat relieved at the news that outsourcing mental health care will not go ahead, the sad state of USyd’s current mental health support system leaves much to be desired.

Through CAPS, students are only eligible for  six sessions, and counsellors remain unable to provide support for students’ longer-term, underlying mental health issues.

For all the recommendations that student wellbeing reviews have already proposed to the University, it appears that taking the next step, to make necessary, significant improvements to the current and inadequate student mental health services, still remains far out of reach.