Rise in demand spurs push

University Student Health Services head Margaret Perley says a new telehealth service has reduced...
University Student Health Services head Margaret Perley says a new telehealth service has reduced wait times for students. PHOTO: SHARRON BENNETT
A sharp increase in demand for mental health support is one of the factors behind the University of Otago’s push to improve student support services.

The University Council this week voted to increase the 2022 compulsory student services fees by 3%, in part to help fund a range of initiatives in the student health sphere.

University chief operating officer Stephen Willis said there had been a sharp rise in demand for mental health and wellbeing services  since the second half of last year. 

The increased funding  would enable the university to better meet those demands, he said.

One of the initiatives flagged in the report to the council on the need to increase the fees was increasing the hours of the Maori counsellor role.

The biggest factor behind that was that Maori student numbers had increased  22% since 2018, Mr Willis said.

That was also coupled with the increased need for mental health services.

‘‘The increase in Maori students also obviously has an impact on the Maori chaplaincy role.

‘‘The university’s chaplaincy service has seen an increased need for emotional, pastoral and spiritual support among students, as well as the overall increase in the number of students.

Also, the awareness of the support chaplaincy can provide seems to have increased, resulting in more students seeking appointments.’’

The university has also embraced a new telehealth service to help reduce wait times for support.

University Student Health Services head Margaret Perley said it had partnered with telehealth counselling service provider Whakarongorau Aotearoa to provide an online mental health service, Puawaitanga. 

The service provides individual counselling at no cost to students, wherever they are in New Zea land.

‘‘This has been an extremely welcome adjunct to the in-person services offered at Student Health and has helped reduce wait times for students wanting to access services.

‘‘It has also provided a clear pathway for Otago students based off the Dunedin campus to be able to access support which had notpreviously been in place. To date, about 200 students have engaged with this service.’’

Student Health extended its operating hours to 8.30am-8.30pm, Monday to Friday, in February last year.

To enable the extended hours to be implemented, Student Health employed additional staff on semester-only contracts.

‘‘These contracts were considered appropriate due to a historic decrease in workload over the summer period,’’ Ms Perley said. 

‘‘However, there have been ongoing challenges with employ ing and retaining semester-only staff. Very suitable candidates have been unable to accept posi tions with us due to the 10-12-week period of no employ ment.’’

Workload over the last summer break also did not decrease, due to the increased needs of students and the availability of telehealth.

‘‘For these reasons we requested additional funding to change semester-only contracts to full-year.

‘‘The increased demand for services also means we are doing all that we can do to negotiate salaries and employment condi tions to attract and retain staff.’’




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