Following the removal of two mental health trained social workers from the Student Equity and Disability Unit (SEADU) at UNSW, students with complex mental illnesses have been left without trained social workers best able to respond to their needs.
The loss of these staff members also follows the university’s implementation in 2013 of a largely ineffectual “wellbeing program” treatment plan for SEADU students with mental illnesses.
In April, Tharunka reported on the loss of three Education Liaison Coordinator (ELC) staff from SEADU, two of whom were the unit’s only social workers with mental health training. ELCs are responsible for assessing the needs of students with disabilities and providing educational adjustments such as alternate exam and assessment arrangement
After one temporary ELC position was ended due to a lack of funds, and a second ELC forced to leave SEADU following the non-renewal of their contract—between them possessing over 55 years of experience in disability support—students with mental illnesses are no longer able to access the services of an ELC with specific training in mental health.
Many students relying on the service provided by SEADU expressed serious concerns with the unit’s staffing overhaul. One UNSW student, Bec Hynek, told Tharunka that without the support of her previous ELC, she may be forced to withdraw from university.
“I’m considering dropping out because the university patently isn’t providing enough support for me and other students with disabilities, particularly [those with] mental illnesses,” Hynek said.
Both mental health trained ELCs raised similar concerns with the quality of support available to students in their absence. “I’m worried about what’s going to happen to students, because there really isn’t anyone with expertise in mental illness social support on campus,” ELC Jamie* said.
The second ELC, Sam*, agreed, adding that many students regard the support provided by a mental health social worker as being the difference between going to university and not pursuing a tertiary education.
“It’s very disheartening for us to leave when we know that we have the skills to help students stay in university and do well. It’s distressing to know there won’t be anyone to help the students, especially given the high prevalence of mental illness.”
According to Geoff Maddox, ELC and past Chairperson of the professional body for university disability advisors, the Disability Education Association NSW & ACT (DEAN), adequately supporting students with mental illnesses requires a more concerted effort than UNSW has made.
“You need a team of at least five ELCs at UNSW, preferably all five with mental health expertise, because there’s so much mental illness that goes along with another disability,” Maddox said. “For example, it’s very likely a blind student could have depression of anxiety as well, just because life is quite tough.”
Professor Wai Fong Chua, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Students), rejected the claim that UNSW is neglecting mental health support for students registered with SEADU, offering her belief in the recruitment process for a new ELC.
“I’m sure [Director of SEADU] Ann Jardine would have thought about how she’d recruit in [mental health]… I’m sure she’s not going to leave a big gap in that service; that would not be sensible.”
However, Tharunka understands the university is not required to hire mental health trained social workers, leaving this entirely to the discretion of the SEADU Director.
While unable to detail the reasons why UNSW’s two mental health trained social workers have not retained their positions at SEADU, Professor Chua said she is sure Jardine had “very good reasons why that’s the case”.
UNSW student Alex* demanded an explanation for why a social worker relied upon by hundreds of students has been abruptly removed from SEADU following the non-renewal of their contract.
“I would like a comment from the university; not just a blasé statement. This is a service I actually need to cope at university. I’m very disappointed and upset and confused… The immediacy of it has shocked me.”
Another student told Tharunka that within two weeks of being reassigned to an existing ELC, he was placed on a four week waiting list for a meeting with the ELC. According to Jamie immediately prior to leaving SEADU, all four ELCs worked overtime to ensure no waiting list existed in early April. “You won’t see the disadvantage until we’re gone,” Jamie said, foreseeing the immediate intensification of SEADU staff workloads and pressures on students following the departure of two ELCs.
Acknowledging that the overburdening of staff is a key problem within SEADU, Professor Chua outlined a number of remedial measures taken to lessen the strain on ELCs in 2013, including hiring casual administrative staff, and establishing a trial “triage system” in conjunction with a “wellbeing program” wherein students with mental illnesses are referred to other counselling services on campus before being given access to an ELC.
However, according to all three ELCs, the wellbeing program has been a failure, causing greater distress than good to the vast majority of students. Under the program, students not previously registered with SEADU who present with a mental health condition are redirected to “wellbeing officers” from either Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS), The Hub’s Student Participation Advisors (SPAs), or Student Development International (SDI).
“One of the things we’ve tried to explain to management is it’s the functional impact of the disability on an individual, and not the diagnostic category, that you’re putting provisions in place for,” Jamie said. “And they can’t quite grasp that. So they think if a person has paranoid schizophrenia, they’ll need a pre-determined treatment plan.”
“What they also don’t understand is the difference between counselling, as provided by CAPS, and social work support. We don’t do clinical psychology; we’re actually here providing very supportive practical advice. It’s not counselling in terms that you know; it’s social work support,” Jamie continued. “You just realise you’re fighting a losing battle.”
Sam agreed. “They want to categorise students with mental illnesses. They don’t understand them. In the duration of this program, we’ve had three good responses from students going through the wellbeing program, but otherwise students have come back to the ELCs without using their wellbeing officers.”
“Our service is very much tailored. For example, students who’ve been sexually assaulted and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder need to feel safe. They want our practical type of supportive counselling, but in an academic environment, management don’t understand this. Half those CAPS counsellors will ring us and send all these students back to SEADU because they don’t understand the educational impacts of their condition.”
Geoff Maddox was similarly critical of the wellbeing program. “It looks like something designed to make it look as if there’s a new initiative when really it won’t make much difference, or even make things worse.”
According to ELC Sam, the program fails by targeting students with complex mental illnesses who already have the more appropriate skilled support of ELCs. “If it was university-wide, rather than trying to get rid of students with disabilities, I’d be more supportive.”
Both Sam and Jamie echoed their concerns regarding the future of students with mental illnesses registered at SEADU. “There’s nobody with mental health training left. What will happen to the students?”
Bec Hynek said this reflects a wider trend of UNSW neglecting students with mental illnesses. “It’s not a priority of the university. I think it’s outrageous the university would seek to marginalise already marginalised students by removing what support they have.”
The Director of SEADU, Ann Jardine, declined to comment on staffing matters within SEADU.