Counselling Service admits breach of trust after releasing over 300 emails

The University Counselling Service has admitted a “serious breach of trust” after releasing the email addresses of over three hundred students and staff taking counselling.
The addresses were accidentally put in the cc field of an email sent out on February 22 to 344 people on the counselling database, making them visible to all recipients. The identities of those with University email addresses can be easily ascertained using the ‘Contact People’ function on University website.

Minutes after the mistake was made a second email was sent out reading: “URGENT PLEASE DELETE LAST EMAIL  (Access to Counselling Building)  Information was included that should not have been sent”. Two hours later the Counselling Service sent out a ‘recall’, designed to delete emails in the recipients’ inbox. However, the recall email also included the 344 addresses in the cc field, revealing all the emails for a second time. The recall was only effective if the email was had not already been opened. A final email was sent out by Senior Counsellor Mandy Alderson explaining the situation and apologising for the mistake.

Student Support Services Manager Steve Page would not reveal the identity of the individual who sent out the email but confirmed that they were still on the staff and were not facing any disciplinary procedures. Page said: “The person who made the mistake realised they made the mistake within seconds actually, and apart from making the mistake everything they then did was the right thing to try and recover it and minimise the damage.

“I got hauled out of a meeting within a few minutes of it having happened and as many people as possible were involved in trying to think about what could be done to try and minimise the harm once it happened,” he said.

When asked about the implications of the error Page said: “I’m concerned it may have [damaged trust in the Counselling Service] because trust is part of the foundation of counselling. I’m not aware of many students who have voiced concerns, there have been some but not a large number, but that doesn’t tell us anything apart from whose spoken.”
A second year PhD student whose email was amongst those revealed described the mistake as a “fundamental breach of trust.” He added: “As a research student I’m responsible for working with undergraduate students, taking practicals, marking work, etc. My use of the Counselling Service is now known to those others on the list  with whom I may be in a supervisory role.

“The fact that they have demonstrated that in their current form they  cannot be trusted to maintain anonymity puts those people who most need help at risk of choosing not to use the service.”

Page said: “We’re very sorry it happened and we’re taking it very seriously. There is nothing we can do that undoes it having happened so all we can do now is do things to make sure it doesn’t happen again but also to respond to anyone who has been troubled or affected.”

Students concerned should contact Alderson at email hidden; JavaScript is required

8 comments

  1. As an ex-student who used the Counselling Service throughout their degree, I would urge students not to be put off using service by this unfortunate turn of events.

    I understand how embarrassing it may be for some people to feel they are associated with having problems or ‘needing’ to speak to a counsellor – my current e-mail address was one of the ones that got leaked. However, only people who were sent the e-mail by mistake will have the chance to know who else was on the list – and it won’t be terrifically interesting anyway!

    People who go to counselling are as sane as everyone else. We may not even have bigger problems than the rest of the student population – we are just brave enough to admit we’d like to talk, in private, to someone who won’t judge us. Suggesting that we should be embarrassed because people know who we are suggests that there IS something to be ashamed about – there isn’t!

    Please, please don’t let this regrettable error put you off seeking help if you want it. The counsellors at the university service do an amazing job and this is the first time to my knowledge that such a slip has been made.

    I would urge anyone in doubt to make the most of this free service before the uni cuts off any more money to student welfare. Don’t let them use this as an excuse to shut the service down. They do a fantastic job and we should br proud of them both for the work they do and for the way they handled this situation. Thanks.

  2. PS: Feel free to publish the above in the next hard copy edition if you like. Including my name.

  3. I agree with Christina, I used the Counselling Service extensively last year and they helped tremendously in the difficulties in my life at the time, and I highly recommend them to anyone who feels they need them. Don’t let this one off administrative slip put you off, you’re never guaranteed total privacy when you go to them anyway, you may be seen walking into the building, or see other students whilst waiting in the waiting room.

  4. The circumstances in which the error was made have not been made clear. The Counselling Service has been doing a terrific job this term in spite of the construction work taking place on the former site of the LFA building. As a result of the disturbance, access to the building has been limited, and a map giving directions to the front door was sent along with the email in question. While a silly mistake to make, it is difficult to believe that any of the 344 people on the database would gain anything from misuse of the information on the email.

    It should also be noted that the service is now operating in small rooms completely unfit for purpose as a result of the University’s lack of foresight.
    It is too simple an interpretation of what happened to blame one individual.

  5. Christina, I think your point is so eloquently put and obviously very thoughtfully considered. I’ve also used the service before, and would echo what you’ve said about not being put off using the service. Your third paragraph, to me, is a brilliant summary of attitudes towards counselling. Even therapists have therapists, and it doesn’t make them worse at their job.

    Besides, there is no point blaming anybody for this. These things happen.

    Also, the second-year PhD student who feels let down should remember that there is no shame or negativity to be associated with someone in a supervisory role receiving counselling. I found that counselling was ultimately character-building, and don’t wish to distance myself from having been there.

  6. Christina, I think your point is so eloquently put and obviously very thoughtfully considered. I’ve also used the service before, and would echo what you’ve said about not being put off using the service. Your third paragraph, to me, is a brilliant summary of attitudes towards counselling.

    Besides, there is no point blaming anybody for this. These things happen.

    Also, the second-year PhD student who feels let down should remember that there is no shame or negativity to be associated with someone in a supervisory role receiving counselling. I found that counselling was ultimately character-building, and don’t wish to distance myself from having been there. Even therapists have therapists, and it doesn’t make them worse at their job.

  7. I sent an e-mail last week to email hidden; JavaScript is required (or whatever the contact e-mail is) regarding printing my letter. I have not heard back – please can someone confirm that it has been received/read?

    My letter was basically saying that to my knowledge, there are no plans to shut down the Uni Counselling Service, as that hasty and somewhat histrionic sentence in my last paragraph suggests: ‘Don’t let them use this as an excuse to shut the service down.’

    I know the service is continuing to experience cuts in their funding but I don’t want to scare people into thinking it will be done away with completely and I apologise if I gave this impression. No-one has said anything, but I thought I’d just get that in there.

    Go counselling. Woop woop.

  8. Its such a shame when you find that a service which has been created to help and assist those who need it end up making an error in judgement and failing to provide whats required in a professional manner…so sad!

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