Roisin McCarthy speaks to Director of CAPS, Phil Quinn
An open letter from the SRC to the University's Senior Management Group (SMG) was recently released. The content outlined a growing concern for the significant rise in student admissions alongside a request for the SMG to re-evaluate its spending on resources such as study space and counselling services. This letter was answered by the University Principal who has declared that the University will be, amongst other improvements, investing an additional £200,000 annually into the Counselling and Psychological Services [CAPS]. Such news is welcomed by Glasgow University’s students who have been increasingly vocal in their dismay at the quality of care provided by CAPS.
To understand more about how this money may be used, I spoke to Dr Quinn, Director of CAPS who was able to outline several key areas that will benefit from the investment: "The first thing we will do is assign new posts; there will be more psychology staff employed, extra counselling staff and extra peer support staff. I would also be very keen to create two peer support tutors to work alongside the coordinator so that peer support may be available throughout the whole university. This will mean that every school within the university will now get the opportunity to have peer support which is a brilliant step for the student body as this element has so far been relatively limited."
The University has undoubtedly given students some tangible evidence of its commitment towards improving mental health services at Glasgow. However, I ask Dr Quinn to speculate on the ever-rising numbers of student referrals, a factor that many have argued means the services available are overstretched and ultimately leave students without the care they require. "It is true that students seeking help has risen. In the past year alone, 2330 students used the service; this is a record amount and an 11% increase on the year before. However, it is important for me to highlight that in spite of these high figures, CAPS has been able to improve the amount of people on waiting lists. If we compare our waiting lists from this year (2016-2017) to last, there has been a huge decrease with 139 people compared to 315 in the academic year 2015-2016. In terms of how long students have to wait, 70% of referrals are seen within two weeks while 88% are seen within three weeks. If I were to compare that to three years ago, a student may have been faced with a waiting list of up to 550 people before they were seen for their first assessment. This is a big achievement and evidence that the services are improving and will continue to improve."
Dr Quinn has been director of CAPS for the past three years, and it is clear to see his passion and determination in changing the face of mental health services at Glasgow. In June 2017, he successfully secured an extra £136,000 for CAPS, funding that was also used to restructure the department and bring in extra staff. The staff in question were in the process of being interviewed as I waited to speak to Dr Quinn. Their roles will "increase [their] capacity to offer 40 more appointments a week".
Such improvements are sure to bring change and a better environment for students on campus however, the identity of CAPS has long been miscommunicated. Too many students are caught between the NHS and the services provided by Glasgow University. Indeed, the services offered by CAPS need to be better and more widely understood. As Dr Quinn points out: " We are not an additional service to the NHS and we are not a substitute to the NHS. What I must underline is that CAPS is here and it is ready for any student to refer themselves and seek help with us. We are absolutely the place to come to and I wouldn't want anyone to feel like they cannot do so. The difficulty for me is when a student who is presenting upwards of a serious mental health illness comes here because they have been referred by their GP to CAPS instead of being referred to an appropriate and specialised sector within the NHS. There is a situation where students are like pinballs in the machine and are being passed from pillar to post and it's not always the right place for them to be here for their treatment."
I wonder then, why the NHS is referring seriously ill students back to the University. It is undoubted that the mental health services within the NHS have been under a state of free-fall for the past decade. Quinn agrees: " Mental health is always the last to be awarded any kind of money, it has always been seen as the Cinderella service within the NHS."
In considering this, I cannot help but think that as our University plugs money into the mental health resources here, the NHS may feel as if it has a fallback and this cannot be the case. The university has a Duty of Care; what it does not possess is a fully formed department of mental health services to administer care to students in a state of serious mental illness. Indeed, the rate of students with a more severe condition has risen, as Quinn speculates: "we have seen a considerable rise in the number of crisis cases."
And yet, despite the increasing rate at which students are being seen by CAPS, they are still at risk of being referred on to an NHS system where they could face waiting lists upwards of several months and possibly longer. Quinn recognises the disparity between the two services remarking " I think there has been a degree of imbalance certainly for the last five years. The NHS have been quite lucky, you have three Universities in Glasgow who offer a good quality of counselling on campus".
It seems as if a stronger line of communication between the NHS and CAPS would work to benefit students and prevent those who are referred on to an NHS service from slipping through the cracks? "I agree with that and I do think that our service should have closer link ups with the NHS. Across the UK and definitely in Scotland there is very little liaison between the NHS and establishments like Glasgow University. There is room for change and I think that could be possible in the form of a clinically appropriate pathway where students are referred directly from CAPS to specialised NHS mental health services and vice versa. If there was a way for our communication with these services to become a lot more direct; a way that may involve bypassing GP’s completely, I think the structure of the system would begin to see far less students finding themselves misplaced and overlooked." Dr Quinn’s outlook is extremely open and a refreshing change from the consistent refusal from many within the mental health sector to consider that change should and could be possible. The SRC’s victory in securing another £200,000 for CAPS is a significant step forward for Glasgow University and the students here look forward to experiencing the future improvements.