The University is announcing today that it will nearly double its annual spending on mental health in a sweeping review of student support networks. An investment of just over £500,000 will fund the employment of 13 additional wellbeing support staff located in departments.
The staff are intended to improve signposting of services and communication with students, as well as fix the disparity of geographical support across York’s three main teaching facilities. Although the change will likely not be an end to York’s mental health concerns, the new budget represents one of the largest investments for wellbeing in the University’s history, addressing major concerns raised by student media and YUSU Wellbeing and Community Officer Steph Hayle.
In an exclusive press release to Nouse, the University said that the roles would soon be fully advertised in anticipation of work beginning in the 2020/21 academic year. New employees will focus on addressing communication issues for students facing academic trouble due to mitigating circumstances including: leave of absences, deadline extensions, and counselling. Open Door, the University’s main counselling centre, will employ a further three staff to coordinate support for students.
Under the new system, academic issues involving mitigating circumstances will be preferably kept within the department through a centralised system. Students can expect better contact through dedicated staff with specific expertise.
This is intended to address another issue raised in the Nouse report, that busy academic departmental staff had to frequently rely on personal experience to guide students.
The wellbeing support team will remove responsibility from module conveners and ensure that departmental inconsistency is levelled. Departments can vary wildly in the quality of support, from the poor reputation of the University’s law school, to the excellent department-wide support provided by Physics.
The programme is also intended to ensure that Heslington East is not left out. Colleges on Heslington East, unlike those on West, lack dedicated receptionists, and the investment reportedly includes a plan to place three on Heslington East, three on West, and three in King’s Manor in town. Campus East support services have long been left behind compared investment on West, making services like Open Door’s on-call duty practitioner harder to access considering the long distance that students are required to travel to get help.
The investment follows intense criticism of York’s wellbeing support system rom Nouse in a report last year. The report exposed a multitude of issues with the University’s approach to mental health, including a lack of information about wellbeing services, as well as huge inconsistencies across departments.
A York Vision report late in 2019 revealed that vast numbers of students had resorted to leaves of absence in order to address problems with their health. The introduction of new staff brings with it the hope that students will be able to access support more easily, enabling them to maintain contact with their departments, and progress in their studies.
A criticism raised in the Nouse report was the problem of over-attendance of Open Door. The service is used by one in nine students during their time at York, many of whom are in circumstances that are not suitable for treatment through the centre, either because they relate closely to academic work, or because they are clinically beyond Open Door’s scope. Last year, Steph Hayle, then in her first term as YUSU’s Community and Wellbeing Officer, reported that many cases had been funnelled towards Open Door despite the vast network of other less well-known, support options. The new system will hopefully enable students needing academic support to get the help they need without engaging in full counselling sessions, if those sessions are not clinically necessary.
Problems with other services still exist: Open Door is still woefully under-prepared for addressing complex, damaging conditions such as alcohol and narcotics addiction, or self-harm. In the report last year, Nouse spoke to students with serious mental illnesses that said they were not referred soon enough for medical help, and would have appreciated further sign-posting for condition-specific support on campus or in the city. The wellbeing support app has gone some way to solving this, but its usage statistics are unknown, and its publicity has not been a particular focus by the University or YUSU.
Commenting on today’s announcement, Hayle said that the investment “was certainly going to streamline how students access support”. She added, however, that the University would need to crack down on what she sees as the cause of York’s mental health crisis: the financial pressure placed on students. “We can provide all the treatment we want, but if we’re not cutting the cost of University for students, we’re not addressing problems correctly.”“This will help a large number of people, but there are still other things that need to be addressed, like the cost of living, and poor accommodation standards.”
Nouse asked the University for a statement regarding how successful they think this new scheme will be and they told us: “we are in the process of recruiting to these posts and the role holders should be fully in place for the start of the next academic year. The aim of the scheme is to provide earlier help and intervention to students within academic departments, and it is hoped that across the University students will feel more supported. We will be monitoring this and a range of outcome measures will be developed.”