The number of students seeking help for depression has more than doubled at some of the country's top institutions, at a time when many universities are drastically cutting back on counselling services funding.
One university has seen a 107% increase in students seeking help in the last five years, but in just one year the amount of money spent on services was cut by more than £290,000. And a student who sought support from her university was turned away by staff who said they could not provide her with help.
Mental health campaigners and student leaders have branded the institutions "irresponsible" after the figures, which were obtained by the HuffPost through the Freedom of Information Act, came to light.
The statistics, from 14 of Britain's top universities between 2006/7 and 2011/12, show a trend towards less funding, coupled with an increase in demand from students for counselling.
King's College London treated 929 students in the 2006/7 academic year. In 2011/12, the number more than doubled to 1,927 students, but the university spent nearly £87,000 less on counselling services than it had done five years prior.
At one point, in 2009/10, funding was slashed by £291,558 from the previous year, despite an increase of 213 students seeking help. The university is also cutting full-time staff by two for the coming academic year.
At Sheffield University, where there has been an increase of 476 students seeking help in the last five years, spending has also been cut by more than £73,000 in just three years.
But Louise Knowles, head of the university's counselling service insisted students having positive experiences is a "key priority" and said the university had seen a "dramatic reduction" in waiting times.
"As part of this commitment to the student experience we offer our students a wide range of support options, such as our bespoke self-help website Wellconnected, the hugely popular Big White Wall site which offers 24-7 support and our varied workshop and group work programme Skills for Life," she said. "These initiatives have given students more access to support than ever before."
Liverpool University saw an increase of 271 students, but cut spending by more than £18,000 in the period between 2009/10 and 20012/13, while staff numbers have decreased by two since the last academic year. A spokesperson for the institution said the number of permanent counsellors has risen for the current academic year, adding: "Commitment to core spending and staffing levels for student counselling has remained consistent, but funding for other activities can vary each year.
"In some years, for example, one-off funding has been available to employ temporary counselling staff, who can offer students additional services."
Durham University saw an increase in 217 students seeking help but has cut staff, while Warwick University budgeted to spend £5,000 less in 2012/13 than its actual expenditure in 2011/12, despite more of its students receiving counselling during this academic year.
The director of Durham's counselling services admitted staff numbers had been reduced but said the service "continues to provide more hours of therapeutic care than ever before", adding the university had "varied" how it provided therapy to give students more choice.
Recent graduate Imogen, who now works as a volunteer for Time to Change, was told by her university they could not provide her with any support.
"Before I left for university I was receiving psychotherapy for depression from my local Child and Adolescent Mental Health service," the 21-year-old explains. "My therapist got in touch with the Mental Health Advisory Team at my university prior to my enrolment to explain my situation and my needs.
"Once I had moved [to university], I had a meeting with an advisor, who admitted I needed long-term help and the university could not provide that. All she could do was suggest that I apply for Disabled Students’ Allowance and offer me six free counselling sessions.
"I left the meeting thoroughly disappointed and refused to go back. I later took it upon myself to visit a local GP and was prescribed medication, which has proved very effective for me."
Imogen says her attendance at university fluctuated due to her depression and she had "little or no motivation" to complete her coursework.
"I had made some friends on my course who were sympathetic towards my problems, but others were more scornful and thought I was making excuses (even though we were all studying psychology).
"The lecturers I confided in were also surprised that I was suffering from depression as I normally seemed cheery and confident – but, of course, the reality can be very different behind closed doors.
"The university I attended holds an annual Mental Health Week, putting on events designed to improve wellbeing and mood and raise awareness of mental health issues. It has always been a successful event and significant money has been raised for mental health charities.
"I just hope that other universities organise the same events but also have an internal mental health service of a higher standard than the service I received."
At Imperial College London, the number of students seeking help for depression has increased by 196 since 2006/7 but spending has been cut by more than £131,000. Between 2009/10 and 2010/11 the funding decreased by nearly £150,000, although the university says this is due to the student counselling service and disability advisory service no longer having a joint budget.
At Cambridge University, where the number of students seeking help is expected to increase, the university has allocated one extra staff member to provide support. The university's counselling services website informed students: "The Counselling Service sees over 1300 students annually. From November to mid-June the demand for appointments usually exceeds the supply available."
Since HuffPost UK enquired into demand exceeding the supply, the website has since been updated, offering students appointments within two days, although during term time this increases to an average to eight days, and can be up to two weeks during "peak times" from November to June.
Mark Phippen, Cambridge's counselling service head said: "It is not the case that anyone is ever turned away and refused an appointment. Urgent cases are given priority and can be seen very quickly."
DEPRESSION AT UNIVERSITY:
Denise Meyer, counselling psychologist and project manager for the Students Against Depression website, said it is "difficult to draw straightforward conclusions" from the figures.
"The increase in those seeking counselling more recently might in part be a positive sign that mental health is steadily becoming less of a taboo subject and more young people are aware of counselling and how it might help," she says.
"Cuts to student counselling services at a time of greater demand are disappointing and irresponsible," she said. "Although peer support initiatives, such as Nightline and online resources like ours, can augment professional services, well funded student support services remain vital to ensuring student wellbeing."
The National Union of Students' disabled officer Hannah Paterson said lecturers need to take an "active interest" in the mental well-being of students.
"Many universities do provide counselling services for students with mental health problems but there is a need for a more proactive approach across the entire institution. I’d like to see lecturers and tutors as well as other staff taking an active interest in the mental well-being of students. So, if a students’ marks drop or they are missing lectures that would trigger someone to offer any support that they might need.
"Unfortunately as university budgets tighten many will start considering cutting pastoral services at a time when research shows students are intense pressure and stress.
"There is some great work being done to end stigma around mental health, particularly through the Time to Change pledge which I’d encourage everyone to sign. The important thing for students to remember is that we all have mental health and at sometimes it’s better than others, we just need to make sure that we get help when we’re struggling."
The other universities who released information under the FOI Act were Cardiff, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Nottingham, York, Queen Mary, University of London and the London School of Economics - who all saw an increase in the number of students being treated for mental health issues, but increased support services through either funding or staff numbers. See table below for the figures in full.
Birmingham University saw a decrease in students seeking help between 2010/11 and 2011/12, but an overall increase since 2006/7. The university has cut funding since the last academic year but aims to increase it for 2013/14.
King's College, London has been contacted for comment but has yet to respond.
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Useful websites and helplines:
Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
Students Against Depression, a website by students, for students.
HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41
Mental Wealth UK To join the community or launch a student group contact the charity on email@example.com
N/A is where information is unavailable. The number of staff Cambridge University employed during 2006/7 to 2011/12 can be found in the institution's annual reports section.
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