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New research breaks down barriers to accessing counselling

Counselling team identifies reasons why certain groups don’t access counselling services and implements action plan to address them.

Two men in a counselling session

Men, refugees and care-leavers are all less likely to access counselling while at university, according to research carried out by Birkbeck’s Counselling Service. As a result, common and potentially preventable struggles during study are not addressed, leading to high drop-out rates from these groups. The Outreach Student Counselling Project has identified the different barriers for each of these groups and is now implementing a range of measures which will help more students to deal with issues and enable them to complete their studies.  

The project has drawn on research and information gathered by Birkbeck’s Counselling Service, Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement team and links already established by the Counselling Service across the Higher Education Counselling Sector. On 20 March, the progress of the project was reported to the wider HE sector at a round-table event, hosted by the project’s funders, the UPP Foundation - a charitable trust created by University Partnerships Programme (UPP) to help tackle the biggest issues facing the higher education sector across the UK.

The final report will evaluate the effectiveness of the new initiatives and will be published in summer 2019.

Barriers to accessing counselling

The research revealed that there are a number of reasons individuals from the three groups were not accessing counselling. These included:

  • A feeling that men should deal with issues alone or that minor issues do not merit seeking support for
  • Concerns about confidentiality
  • Concerns about prejudice or racism
  • A desire to look to the future and not the past
  • Previous negative experiences of therapy
  • Cultural attitudes to engaging with talking therapy
  • A lack of awareness of the service.

Making counselling accessible

In response to these findings, the Counselling Service has implemented a number of new initiatives.

  • A Mind Body Matters gym scheme provides those with mild to moderate anxiety with a fully paid, eight week gym membership, as exercise has been shown to be as effective as medication or counselling at reducing symptoms of anxiety
  • Working to increase the number of male and BAME counsellors employed by the service
  • Training counsellors in cultural fluency
  • Implementing a poster campaign to raise awareness of the service
  • Launching a podcast series, which covers commonly identified issues, so that students can access support without having to contact the service if they don’t want to
  • Building a peer support system, which will provide Birkbeck students with thorough training in active listening and will create a more inclusive, kind and open community at the College, by enabling students to support one another.

Jo Myddelton, counsellor and project lead, said, “Understanding what keeps different individuals from asking for help when they’re struggling is key to providing an inclusive service for Birkbeck’s students. We hope that the initiatives that we have put in place will bring benefits not just to students from the groups this project focussed on, but across the whole student body. We will continue to share our learning with counselling teams across the sector and to learn from others as well.”

Richard Brabner, Director of the UPP Foundation, said: “The Outreach Student Counselling Project is the culmination of hard work and commitment by Birkbeck to improving mental health outcomes for their students, especially for those that are most difficult to reach.

“At the UPP Foundation, we understand that there is an urgent need to address student mental health concerns. The work of this project resonates with our focus on student retention and success, and we’re proud that our partnership with Birkbeck is helping to make a tangible difference to improving mental health outcomes. We hope that the results of this pilot project can be scaled up and introduced at universities across the country.”

Charlotte Williams, Head of the Birkbeck Counselling Service said: “The aim of the project was to gain insight into the barriers facing individuals from these three groups and implement initiatives to help them access support alongside improving accessibility to the whole student population.

“With an increase of 38% in referrals last year and a further 33% to date this year we are clearly reaching out to those in need. The percentage increase for men accessing the service has improved however there is still plenty of work to do and Birkbeck is committed to acting according to the research outcomes and trialling further initiatives beyond the funding period.”

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