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Seven part-time counsellors and one part-time health educator were made redundant last year and the redundancies were initially controversial, with the counselling team alleging a lack of consultation.
University of Otago Student Health Services director Dr Kim Ma’ia’i said last week the health service shake-up was almost complete and the university was waiting to fill one more full-time psychologist position, after hiring three mental health nurses, one counsellor, two clinical psychologists and an occupational therapist this year. Student Health now had 13 mental health and wellbeing staff in total, including a psychiatrist who worked part-time.
Dr Ma’ia’i said student health was focusing on a brief intervention framework and on educating students about self-care and wellbeing.
There were now 5.5 equivalent full-time mental health professionals responding to "acute student demand" and offering assistance on the same day students rang in.
"At times of peak student demand we cannot guarantee that we will be able to see every student seeking an appointment on that day," Dr Ma’ia’i said.
"However, we have a fallback in place for students who can’t get a same-day appointment, where a team member will ring them back the same day to assess safety and develop an interim plan."
In a letter to staff obtained by the Otago Daily Times last year, the university defended its decision to change its services, saying it needed to obtain the most benefit it could from its investment in mental health.
There were six suspected suicides in the student population in 2017. Dr Ma’ia’i said the health and wellbeing team had already seen a 46 % increase in direct contact with students in the year to date, compared with 2017.
Student volunteer group Silverline Otago general executive Alex Carr, a fourth-year law and economics student, said he had heard anecdotally there had been availability issues when it came to mental health appointments in the past, and he thought it was "proactive" of the university to try to address that.
"[I understand] they have kind of a triage level now, which is a good thing."
Silverline worked with groups of students to educate them about mental health and self-care, including organising workshops with health professionals and organising creative and sporting activities. Mr Carr said he hoped the increase in students using mental health services was due to increased awareness of mental health issues. He did not think university was any more stressful than it had been in previous years.
Although some students expressed unease about the changes last year, Otago University Students’ Association support manager Sage Burke said he had received no complaints so far about student health’s new structure and it appeared to be running smoothly.
Dr Ma’ia’i said some, but not all, of the new health professionals had previously worked for the Southern District Health Board’s mental health services. There was a stronger emphasis on providing assistance for students with coexistent drug and alcohol problems.
"We now have four staff working within the team who have expertise in this area," he said.
Clinicians from Clinical Advisory Services Aotearoa had recently provided training to all clinical staff at Student Health regarding best practice around assessing and managing suicide risk.
Where to get help
Lifeline: 0800-543-354 or (09) 522-2999
Suicide Prevention Helpline: 0508-828-865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline: 0800-376-633 or free text 234
Ministry of Health: Need to talk? 1737, free 24/7 four-digit phone and text number