Redundancies Strike UNSW Mental Health Services, But Pre-approved Extra Funding Will Offset Potential Loss of Care

By Marc-Daniel Sidarous

Ten psychologists at UNSW Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) have accepted voluntary redundancies as part of cost-saving measures at the university.

The psychologists, who equated to 5.8 full-time positions, agreed to leave when revenue shortfalls brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic led the university to extreme cost-saving measures. The psychologists are staggering their withdrawals over six months to minimise student disruption.

An approved business case from 2019, obtained exclusively by Tharunka, provides an extra $5.5 million over 6 years for a total restructure of mental health care at UNSW. According to the Director of Health and Wellbeing at UNSW, Dr Bill Kefalas, the additional funds and staff should offset any potential downside from the redundancies.

According to one source, the original business case was for $20 million but was scaled back due to financial difficulties the university faced pre-coronavirus.

The redundancies were not a part of the business case.

‘The fact we got the business case…gave us the staff to fill the gap [caused by the redundancies]’, Dr Kefalas told this reporter.

Neil Morris, Vice-President of Campus Life and Community Engagement, told Tharunka the need for additional funds and a total restructure of mental health services at UNSW was brought about by a review conducted by Price Waterhouse Coopers. The review found severe inadequacies in mental health treatment at UNSW, including students in crisis presenting to CAPS to only be seen by a receptionist, staff unsure of where to refer students in distress and several complaints from students using CAPS currently.

In 2019, 86% of first-time presenters to CAPS were diagnosed as having either high or very high levels of psychological distress. More disturbingly, nearly 45% of first-time attendees disclosed thoughts or attempts to harm themselves or other people.

The new structure will see a triage-like system implemented, similar to that found in a hospital emergency room. The hope is students will see a trained mental health professional straight away, or as soon as practicable, who will then refer the student to the appropriate level of care based on their needs.

The university is also investing in a 24-hour mental health hotline for students and staff to seek guidance, providing extra resources for colleges and international students, and training more staff in mental health first aid.

The rationale for the restructure is that students in more need should be able to see a psychologist sooner. Under the old system, all students, no matter their level of severity, would see a psychologist on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Dr Kefalas says although there will be less psychologists to see acute cases as a result of the redundancies, a mixture of referring less severe cases to more appropriate treatments and hiring outside contractors will mean no student will be prevented from seeing a mental health professional in a timely manner.

‘There is no worry about a backlog’, Dr Kefalas says.

Manu Risoldi, the outgoing President of the SRC, is optimistic about the changes.

‘I am of the opinion it is a good thing. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much communication with students and it will make them think the worst.’

The real stress-test, however, will come in 2021, when the university is expecting more students back on campus. In particular, with the news of a COVID-19 vaccine close to completion, UNSW may see international student levels at pre-pandemic levels.

The restructure will see CAPS renamed to ‘Psychology and Wellness’. The new service will remain a part of the UNSW Health department, sitting within the Wellbeing portfolio overseen by the Pro Vice Chancellor (Education). Four staff from the ‘Student Support and Success’ and ‘Equitable Learning Services’ teams with some psychological training will transfer into this new space, to aid moderate and lower risk cases.

The only way to get a Medicare rebate for psychological services is to obtain a ‘mental health care plan’ from a GP. Until recently, the Medicare rebate was capped at 10 sessions. The Federal Government announced in the last budget this would be expanded to 20 sessions.

Unlike at most psychological services, UNSW does not charge students more than the Government rebate. Both Neil Morris and Dr Kefalas are assuring students this will continue to be the case.

‘There will be no out-of-pocket costs for students under the new model,’ Mr Morris said.

Professor Merlin Crossley, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), provided the following statement in response to questions from Tharunka.

‘UNSW’s mental health resources available for students on campus will increase in 2021.’

‘The University’s business case for the restructuring of mental health services provides a $5.5m uplift in spend on services. CAPS staff taking voluntary redundancy will be replaced by trained psychologists who will provide longer hours to increase the coverage for students and provide more available consult time per week.’

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