We Should Never Have to Reach Rock-Bottom

Elizabeth writes about her own experience with mental health and therapy, and looks at what support Royal Holloway offers.

Elizabeth Ajao

This morning I met with my first private therapist. Having worked hard enough to wriggle my way out of my overdraft, I could afford to splurge £50 on her. I selected one from an online list of specialists on Harley Therapy and met her via Zoom less than 24 hours later.

I’ve suffered with my mental health for several years. I tried counselling at school, I found myself with the matron more times than I can count, and the pastoral care staff seemed to have me on constant watch. There was never anything seriously wrong with me. I had friends who had been hospitalised several times, others suffering with eating disorders who would push food around on their plates and disappear to the bathroom just seconds after finishing dinner, and others who were slapped with countless diagnoses: bipolar disorder, PTSD, psychosis. For me, though, it was just a constant feeling of hopelessness.

When we were at school, any form of mental unwellness was potentially detrimental. Firstly, there’s the issue of the student: is this going to affect their personal growth and development? Are they at serious risk of harm? Secondly, there’s the issue of the school: are they doing everything within their power to protect the student? Either way, schools protected their students the best they could, even when the student wasn’t categorically high-risk’.

The student population of Royal Holloway is approximately 10,000. In the UK, an average of 21.5% of students have mental health issues, and 33.9% have a serious psychological issue which requires professional help[1]. Up to 1 in 4 students are using or waiting to use counselling services at university. Apply that to Royal Holloway and suddenly you’ve got between 2,100 and 2,500 students requiring counselling, and how many counsellors are there? Nine.

Understandably, when a university can only afford to provide nine mental health professionals (with more during ‘peak times[2]’) and students need an average of six counselling sessions[3], there has to be some way of narrowing down who gets help when. Those students who are at high-risk harm will get help first, as should be the case. Although, counselling is really the first stop on a long journey to recovery. When someone hands in that application form, they’re already taking a huge leap in saying, “I need help”. When they’re then put on a waiting list and told they’ll get help when the higher-risk students are out of the way, they’re left feeling like they need to get worse before getting help.

That’s just one of the terrible things about suffering with mental health issues. Being told there isn’t space because you aren’t ‘high-risk’ enough just makes you think, ‘what do I have to do to get help?’. Of course, to get that help from the NHS, you have to be more seriously mentally unstable. Some people might call this part a ‘cry for help’ – the fact that there’s a name for this shows it’s more common than it should be. A mentally unwell brain is often more obsessive than a sound one, and will often nag at you, “just a bit deeper”, “just one more pill”, “just a few kilograms lighter and you’ll be sick enough”. Suddenly the person who wasn’t seriously ill enough for counselling is at the top of the high-risk pile.

It’s unacceptable that people should have to hit rock bottom before they’re given help. Counselling exists as the first port of call, the first thing you partake in because you don’t want to reach that even darker place. I spent £50 on a private therapist I’d never even heard of as a pre-emptive way to secure my mental health pre-lockdown. Yes, it’s free, but I’m not going to risk my own mental well-being in trying to fit the criteria required for me to get counselling at university. So, when given the option of having to wait weeks on end for an available gap or spend a week’s Tesco budget on getting help now, I chose the latter.


[1] House of Commons, 2020. Support for Students with Mental Health Issues in Higher Education in England. London: House of Commons Library, p.6.

[2] Counselling – Royal Holloway Student Intranet. [online] Available at: https://intranet.royalholloway.ac.uk/students/help-support/counselling/home.aspx

[3] Le Vine, C., 2014. Counselling: How Long Does It Take?. [online] Counselling Directory. Available at: https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/memberarticles/counselling-how-long-does-it-take

Comments from Royal Holloway

At Royal Holloway we are committed to providing excellent mental health services for all our students.

Our mental health support is based on a holistic approach with students able to choose support from a wide range of sources to meet their needs in the best way for them. This includes counselling but also support from a mental health adviser, primary care practitioners, wellbeing advisers, specialist mentors and the NHS via GPs or the Community Mental Health Team. For students at higher risk there is often intervention and support from more than one of these services working together.

Students are offered assessment appointments at the point of registration and in most cases are seen within a day or two. If students need to access our counselling services, they are invited to attend their first session of counselling as quickly as possible, with focussed sessions based on the students’ specific needs. If further sessions are needed, they are scheduled one session at a time with their preferred counsellor, depending on mutual availability.

We recommend that anyone who feels they need to access mental health and wellbeing support at Royal Holloway to contact the Student Advisory & Wellbeing team via email ([email protected]). More information about our services can be found on the student intranet.

Helen Groenendaal, Head of Student Advisory & Wellbeing at Royal Holloway