Student Health counselling cut

Sandra Buchanan.
Sandra Buchanan.
The University of Otago has dismissed concerns about a "pilot'' scheme that caps counselling sessions at Student Health.

A Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust spokeswoman and a former staff member have spoken out about pressures on the service and the impact on students.

The Otago Daily Times understands some Student Health staff have been unhappy with the new session cap, but a university spokeswoman said last week it "appears [staff] are on board''.

Otago University Students' Association president Laura Harris said the organisation would be watching the situation.

She said there had to be sufficient flexibility in the session cap for those who needed more support.

A person familiar with the service, who declined to be named, said students were being referred to public health services which were not able to deal with extra demand.

Student Health Services director Dr Kim Ma'ia'i said counselling sessions had been limited to six per student, but the cap would be applied with discretion.

Broadly, staff accepted the need for change, but he acknowledged there was concern.

"The concerns expressed to your newspaper do highlight some misinterpretation that perhaps needs to be addressed in the future,'' he said in an emailed response.

The pilot started this year in response to waiting times of up to five weeks for counselling last year.

It involves more referrals to other services.

The aim was to improve access for a broader cross-section of students.

"Where a student's needs exceed the six-session limit, a review is undertaken to ascertain how these ongoing needs can be met.

"We are continually re-evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of the 2016 counselling pilot in order to achieve these core values of easy access and high flexibility, so necessary in this age group,'' Dr Ma'ia'i said.

Suicide Prevention Trust spokeswoman Corinda Taylor said some students were shocked by the change.

"It is utterly outrageous that vulnerable young students will be turned away from the help they so desperately need due to the reduction of counselling services.

"Exam times can be a particularly stressful time and to put a cap on the number of sessions can be dangerous.

"With more than 20,000 students in Dunedin we need to have more access to affordable and free counselling services for our young people in distress, not less.''

She had spoken to a student with an anxiety problem who was "dismissed'' from the service and had to find support from fellow students.

Former Student Health counsellor Sandra Buchanan, a registered psychotherapist, left the service last year after 11 years.

"Over the years these cuts would be pushed on us,'' she said.

Ms Buchanan said she had expressed her views about Student Health management in an exit interview.

She said staff opinions about the service were not always well received, and her concerns include the management style of Dr Ma'ia'i.

In response to Ms Buchanan, Student Services director Karyn Thomson said in her experience Dr Ma'ia'i respected the professionalism and contribution of all staff.

Dr Ma'ia'i said the service employed 7.8 full-time equivalent counsellors and a 0.6 full-time equivalent psychiatrist, and staff turnover was low.

Ms Buchanan believed the counselling service was undervalued, and there was a perception the counselling team was "trouble'' as it advocated for students.

She said other staff had left because of similar concerns.

Ms Buchanan said people were more encouraged now to speak about their mental health, which increased demand for counselling.

Most students needed only a couple of sessions, but she was worried about a small number who needed more.


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Lifeline: 0800 543 354.

Depression Helpline (8am-midnight): 0800 111 757.

Healthline: 0800 611 116.


Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).

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