News Editor Charlie O’Keeffe reports on inequalities within Birmingham university’s mental health support

Written by Charlie O'Keeffe
Images by Korng Sok

Content Warning: This article mentions mental health and suicide.

Some students have highlighted the social inequality which exists within the mental health support offered by the University of Birmingham. They have made the point that where some can afford access to private mental health care, others are reliant on the NHS and the free support that is offered by the University. 

The University Wellbeing Service provides free counselling. However, those who feel more comfortable with face-to-face sessions face a ‘limited capacity’ to support this, so may deal with longer wait times. The maximum time a student could delay an academic deadline, without diagnostic or other evidence, is just 5 days.

The issue of long wait times is present not just in University Wellbeing Services but across the country. The Royal College of Psychiatrists have said that people may be facing a ‘hidden wait time’ for starting treatment since there is no official data recording how long people wait between their initial referral and actually beginning treatment. One article said that in certain areas of the UK over 50% of referrals have to wait 23 weeks to receive ‘both an initial consultation and a secondary follow-up session’. This issue with access has meant that many mental health patients have been turning to A&E for help, since they feel they have been left with no other option.

People may be facing a ‘hidden wait time’

The University Wellbeing Service says it will provide only ‘up to 5 sessions,’ of therapy concentrating on ‘the issues that are causing you the most distress’. The university does say that for more ‘complex issues’ it is possible that you would ‘be referred to speak with a Counsellor from either Mental Health and Wellbeing Service, our partnership provider, Randstad, or UBHeard for either ongoing sessions or signposting to the most appropriate service.’

I spoke to a student about their experience seeking University support for their own multi-factor mental health struggle, and they said that when they sought support: ‘At this point I was dealing with some heavy PTSD and OCD (I still do but it was at its worst then) as a result of getting severe Post-Covid symptoms. I was being bullied by my flatmates about the fact that I hated them having massive parties and going to massive events and coming back with Covid symptoms. I ended up getting some sort of fresher’s flu because of them and I lost all my remaining mobility and had to move home.’ 

They described how whilst they were experiencing these issues, the University’s ‘mental health provisions took months to access and then I was only given like 4 sessions and referred onto a charity which took months to access (and then I was only offered like 6 sessions).’

The University’s ‘mental health provisions took months to access

These issues connect to academic work through the university’s Reasonable Adjustment Plan (RAP) system. The top of the list of recommended medical evidence to include in a RAP application for mental health issues is a ‘diagnosis’, something that in the context of the long wait-times can be challenging to gain access to.

I spoke to another student about his experience trying to get a diagnosis and he explained how challenging this was. When he first went to a GP, years ago, he said: ‘She said she couldn’t help me because I wasn’t suicidal, and that she had other patients in worse situations’. He specified that ‘At no point was I able to access diagnostic services, counselling, CBT or NHS care.’

It was only through going through private healthcare that he was able to receive an Autism diagnosis. Once he accessed private healthcare, the process took just ‘2 months’. He and his family had to fundraise for this private care since. He said it ‘seemed like the only way I would be able to access any help at university through DSA’. He said that for his issues that he doesn’t yet have a diagnosis for, the university are ‘less helpful.’

The university also asks that students ‘Please note that some GP’s charge for writing evidence letters and you will be liable to pay this fee.’ This means that there can be a financial cost to seeking university support. Furthermore, the British Medical association states that, due to being ‘inundated with work’, doctors may be reluctant to provide an evidence letter. An American study found that mental health issues like depression and anxiety, especially when co-occurring, are associated with poorer academic performance

Redbrick reached out to the University for comment but they did not respond.

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