Counselling at in-house university services is effective at improving depression, anxiety, wellbeing, social anxiety and academic distress, research suggests.

The study – which collected data from 5,568 students across four university counselling services – is the first of its kind in the UK to pool data from different higher education institutions using different computer platforms and clinical measures used at every counselling session.

It has now been published in the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling and was carried out by the SCORE consortium – which stands for Student Counselling Outcomes, Research and Evaluation.

The group, supported by BACP and UKCP, is made up of researchers from universities and BACP as well as members of our University and Colleges Division, who are practising counsellors and/or heads of university counselling services.

The study provides the first step to developing a UK dataset of student counselling outcomes from multiple universities, using different measures and involving data collection standards similar to those used by IAPT. 

First step

Lead researcher Dr Emma Broglia, a Senior Research Fellow at BACP, said: “This study is the first step to fully understanding and having the evidence to show the positive impact of in-house university counselling services can have on students’ lives.

“It clearly demonstrates the high levels of depression, anxiety, and academic distress that some students face during their academic years – and how in-house counselling can support them through that.

“The findings about impact of counselling on helping with academic distress are particularly interesting. This is a key area of skills for counsellors working with students and makes in-house university counselling services uniquely placed to support them.

Sector-wide impact

“We hope this study shows why there needs to be a national dataset that could help academics and practitioners understand more about the effectiveness of in-house university counselling services. This could have a sector-wide impact and mean in-house counselling services could contribute more significantly to policy decisions about student mental health.”

The study, which analysed routinely collected data from 2017 and 18, used two different outcome measures to determine how counselling had improved students’ mental health and wellbeing.

The findings included:

  • Students were most likely to present to counselling with high levels of depression, anxiety, academic distress and social anxiety.
  • Academic distress was the source of highest levels of concern among students presenting to counselling, according to one of the measures. Examples of which included lacking enjoyment, motivation, or concentration for their lectures, not feeling confident that they would succeed academically, and falling behind on their course commitments.
  • Both outcome measures revealed that counselling was particularly effective for depression.
  • Counselling improved anxiety, wellbeing, social anxiety and academic distress.
  • The combined rate for severe and moderately severe distress fell from 60% at pre-counselling to 27% post-counselling for all clients.
  • Students with unplanned endings for their counselling had poorer outcomes than students with planned endings. This analysis was only possible because the services involved used measures at every counselling session (rather than only before and after) and this has important practice implications.

The data also suggests that, compared to earlier studies reporting on the same measures, there has been a rise in the levels of psychological distress in students who approach their counselling service.

Specialist service

These findings not only highlight the increased levels of distress that counselling services are working with, but also demonstrate how university counsellors offer a specialist service that effectively contributes to students’ mental health and the wider contextual challenges of higher education.

Afra Turner, Chair of the SCORE consortium and Senior Psychotherapist and Supervisor at Kings College London Counselling and Mental Health Service, said: “The success of the project demonstrates the importance of services and researchers working together to improve our understanding of students mental health needs. Going forward the consortium will build on these results by welcoming and supporting  more services to participate through sharing their data.”

Deputy Chair of SCORE, Louise Knowles, who is Head of Mental Health and  Psychological Therapy Services at the University of Sheffield Counselling Service, said: “This study has been achieved by a fantastic collaborative effort by practitioners on the ground and researchers. It is really heartening to see evidence of the effectiveness of our in house counselling services and the positive impact they can have on students’ overall experience of university life.”

As part of the study, two services used the Clinical Outcomes in Routine Evaluation-Outcome Measure (CORE-OM) and two services used the Counseling Center Assessment of Psychological symptoms (CCAPS)

Read the full paper in the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling.