top of page

AUT's 'free' counsellors

“It took me ages to get the courage, and they just laughed at me and gave me anxiety pills.”

(‘Free’ is in inverted commas as the services aren’t actually free – you’re paying for them out of your student fees.)

By Julie Cleaver with help from Jennifer Daruwalla and Gabbie Tutheridge

In 2015 I was struggling. After months of hardship, I finally plucked up the courage to visit AUT’s free counsellors on the City Campus. I would have paid to see a more experienced counsellor, but I was in my second year of university and money was scarce. Also, I had no idea what would happen and whether counselling would be worth three months of my savings. But looking back, I wish I hadn’t seen anyone from AUT.

The woman I saw meant well, however she told me, with a smirk, that there was “nothing wrong with me” and then went on to talk about her life when she was my age and the fact that all students are stressed so “you’re not any different”. To be honest, immediately afterwards I felt great. “There’s nothing wrong with me! An expert said so!” I was stoked. But it wasn’t true. At that time there was definitely something wrong with me, and that woman telling me otherwise stopped me from seeking the help I needed.

After a year of seriously struggling I eventually taught myself neurolinguistic programming (look this shit up it’s amazing), practiced it every day and managed to overcome what I was going through. But my life would have been a lot easier if that darn woman would have a) realised I wouldn’t be seeing her if something wasn’t wrong with me and b) asked me to come back for one more session, just in case.

Further, I have seen the free doctors at AUT and found them to be equally incompetent. My experiences with AUT’s health and wellbeing services haven’t been great, which made me wonder whether anyone else has had a similarly bad experience. Turns out the answer was, sadly, a big fat yes.

They just laughed at me

Sieska, a Communications student who studied at AUT from 2014 to 2016, saw the AUT City Campus doctor in 2015 to get the “jab” (the Depo Provera contraceptive injection). However, she says the risks were not properly explained to her.

After receiving the injection, Sieska started to feel extremely depressed and decided to go back to the AUT doctor for help. However, she says the doctor didn’t take her seriously and actually laughed at her about her problems.

“I went in and finally told someone [the AUT doctor] how crap I was feeling – it took me ages to get the courage – and they just laughed at me and gave me anxiety pills. No advice about the jab side effects – nothing.”

Sieska says the doctor told her she didn’t have a history of mental health problems and therefore had nothing wrong with her.

“The doctor made me cry afterwards. It took every ounce of courage for me to walk in there to explain how I was feeling. It’s not easy for someone like me, who is a person who is usually very sure of myself, to admit to someone I felt out of control and ask for help. So to then be made to feel like she couldn’t get me out of the room fast enough, like I was just a number in her book, was awful.”

She says after the chemicals from the jab were out of her system, she felt completely fine. “But the doctor didn’t check my records. If she had checked my records she would have seen I was on the jab and she could have been like, ‘Hey maybe you’re having side effects from this,’ or, ‘hey, I’m sorry to hear you’re feeling like this, why don’t we try some actual helpful medication?’”

Sieska also says she would never have received the jab if the negative effects were properly explained to her.

“If the AUT doctor had clearly outlined the side effects I would have realised sooner.”

They don’t have the capacity to care

Jessica, 23, studied economics and marketing at AUT and graduated in 2017. She was one of her department’s top students, but during late 2016, she started having trouble breathing.

“My breathing seemed to be reacting really weirdly to some social stress, which was concerning, and the doctor who I went to see at the AUT Medical Centre suggested it might be psychosomatic and suggested the counsellors, which made sense to me.”

Early the following year in February 2017, Jessica booked a session with a counsellor on the AUT City Campus. She says the appointment was relatively easy to book, but that she was not encouraged to take part in regular, ongoing sessions.

“The appointment itself was overall pleasant; we went over some strategies to deal with stress and prioritising everything I was juggling. But at the end of the appointment, I felt like she was closing my metaphorical file and wiping her hands of me, as if she was saying, ‘Great, hour-long appointment over, you’re cured!’ when I'd really been hoping for some ongoing help.”

Jessica says because the sessions are ‘free’, she figured their system would be too overloaded to handle her, and that she wasn’t “high priority” compared to other students.

“I didn't want to put any more pressure on them, so I kinda gave up.” But she didn’t get better. And after dealing with her mental health issues for almost a year, at the end of 2017 Jessica’s partner managed to convince her to seek help, this time, outside of AUT.

“Price was kind of a barrier, but my friend suggested her counsellor in Mairangi Bay who was still $104, but going off my friend's recommendation, I figured it'd be a good bet. It actually turned out really freaking well and I really needed it, and it actually was a godsend at that point in time, and things could have turned out pretty shitty if I hadn't started that process.”

However, Jessica says if she wasn’t in a position where she was able to pay that $104 every two weeks, like many other students, she’s not sure what she would have done.

“I worry because there's so many people who aren't in the same situation as me, who can’t pay because they're already supporting their family or paying other expenses, and $104 every two weeks is an absolutely ridiculous amount.”

Jessica says she doesn’t believe the AUT counsellors don’t care about students, but rather that they are too busy to treat their patients properly and effectively.

“It’s such an overrun system that they don't even have the capacity to care. They're just trying to get people in and out to tick boxes and they don't even have time to stop and evaluate their service, but they need to.”

A month and four days nearly too late

Trigger warning – suicide

Last month Jackie (not her real name – changed for privacy protection) was at what she described as a “low point”. The exam stress was beginning to reach a boiling point, her parents were not being supportive, her friends were being “flakey”, and her mental health was acting up. Jackie says she was experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety but could not afford to be professionally diagnosed.

“I wanted to take advantage of the fact that uni had a free counsellor, and I thought ‘hey, might as well’. Little did I know that the waiting list had a waiting period of over one month!”

“I wanted to take advantage of the fact that uni had a free counsellor, and I thought ‘hey, might as well’. Little did I know that the waiting list had a waiting period of over one month!”

She was told that the next available appointment was exactly a month and four days from when she had called to inquire. So she had to look elsewhere.

“It was 3am on a Friday night. I can still remember it. I wanted to end it all – it felt like there was no reason to keep living. I had a pen in my hand as I was writing a letter to my mum, but that’s when I thought ‘fuck it, I have to call a suicide hotline’, and that’s when I decided to pick up the phone and talk to someone pronto.”

What ensued was a rushed 30-minute phone call, where Jackie described all of her thoughts and feelings to someone on the phone. Before she knew it, she was hearing shitty recycled phrases such as “but you have so much to live for!” and “your family and friends love you!”, and finally, an apologetic “I’m really sorry, but we have a 30-minute time limit on our phone calls. Is there anything I can do for you, Jackie?”

“Yes. Yes, there was,” Jackie says. “She could have at least pretended to fucking care. It felt like I was just a sheep, being herded into the ‘okay, I saved someone’s life’ pile. I felt embarrassed, ashamed to have been feeling suicidal. She was meant to make me feel better, but I just ended up feeling even worse.”

Even though AUT’s mental health services could not be there for Jackie, at least there was someone else who could be (albeit a pretty crappy someone else).

What the heck is happening? Plus some stats

Nadine Tupp is AUTSA’s former President and a mental health advocate who has been on a long journey with her own mental health. She has many criticisms of the ‘free’ health services at AUT.

“I never even went to the AUT ones, because during my time as an SRC [Student Representative Council] member, or as my time as president, or chats with people, the feedback that was given to me is that the service was inadequate.”

One of her largest complaints is the massive waiting time students face. She says if someone is booking an appointment they will experience wait times of up to four to six weeks, and two to four weeks at the beginning of the semester. These findings are in-line with the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) recent ‘Kei Te Pai’ survey, where 1,762 tertiary students around the country were interviewed about their experience with mental health. This survey found that 33 percent of students had to wait for two weeks or longer to book an appointment with their campus counselling services. Nadine also says there is some favouritism with the services.

“Too many students are not seen on the day they go in, sometimes when they are super serious things. But if a staff member from AUT or AUTSA goes with them, they can manage to get them in on the day.”

Further, she says there are cultural incompetency issues with the services, and some Rainbow, Māori or Pasifika students AUTSA has sent have come back saying they never want to go again.

“When you are already presenting to a counsellor it’s the world’s biggest step to even get there and when you are not treated with dignity and respect when you do so, why would you go back? That person has just made you feel invalidated.”

However, university mental health services being incompetent appears to be a nation-wide trend. According to the ‘Kei Te Pai’ survey, 37 percent of students were either somewhat satisfied or extremely dissatisfied with the mental health services they received on campus.

Nadine does not find these figures surprising. She believes our university needs to be doing better as it has a “duty of care” to its students, and this duty extends to students’ mental health. In practical terms this looks like more counsellors with more experience dealing with a wide range of issues and people, shorter waiting times, and follow up messages as well as encouragement to book more appointments, rather than the ‘you’re healed now, k cool bye’ approach.

“They need to be recognising that students need more than one session and if they’re not, there is something wrong with that service in general. To them to not be booking someone in, I think isn’t fulfilling that duty of care, and they need to know that they need to follow up, with a text or an email, to be like ‘hey how’s it going, do you want to book one in?’”

What now?

The mental health services appear to be failing many AUT students. Despite the presumed good intentions of many of the services’ employees, the facility appears under resourced and therefore unable to give the care AUT students need and deserve.

When asked what they thought about our findings, the mental health services did not have time to comment as they were “actually seeing students who requested appointments”. The official comment from Alison Sykora, AUT's Head of Communications is: "Due to the heavy workload of the counselling team, we were unable to respond within the timeframes." (It appears their waiting time for journalists is longer than two weeks as well.) But all I know is that AUT’s mental health services failed me, Sieska, Jessica and Jackie, and it needs to be better. Plus, according to the Kei Te Pai survey, 20 percent of students around the country have considered dropping out of university due to mental health, and 28 percent considered dropping out due to feeling overwhelmed, therefore it would be in the AUT’s best interest to look after students’ mental health more effectively.

My final message to AUT: if you care about your students, or at least your back pocket, sort the mental health services out. We deserve better.

If you or anyone you know needs help, here are some people you can contact.

For all emergencies call 111; Community Mental Health Urgent Response team: 0800 800 717; Central Auckland crisis team: 0800 800 717; North Shore crisis team: 09 487 1414; South Auckland crisis team: 0800 775 222; West Auckland crisis team: 09 822 8500; Lifeline, 24-hour telephone counselling service: 09 522 2999 or 0800 543 354; for support from a trained counsellor at any time free call or text 1737; Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO); Healthline: 0800 611 116; Samaritans: 0800 726 666.

bottom of page