‘I’m scared to reach out now’: What happens when your uni suspends you for your mental health

One student was told ‘pack your bags’

As the hype of Freshers’ Week faded, Ruth Day was struggling with her mental health. She tried admitting herself to hospital and attempted to get help, but things were escalating beyond her control. She overdosed.

“Four weeks later, I was back home,” she said. But not by choice. Ruth was alone and yearning for help, but instead the University of Bristol suspended her under its “fitness to study” policy. 

She was sent home instead of supported. As Bristol’s deputy vice-chancellor wrote in a letter, it was time to “pack your bags”.

“I had not been warned about this at all, and the decision to suspend had been taken completely out of my hands,” she tells The Tab. 

“I was just starting to feel that there was some hope and I was doing well in my studies, and then the university suspended me without even consulting my GP. I need purpose and a voice to keep going, and by suspending me the university took that away.”

She is one of three students at Bristol University, London’s Queen Mary, and Hertfordshire University who have told The Tab how their university used fitness to study procedures to force them to take a leave of absence (LOA) against their will. 

More and more students are dropping out because of their mental health

Previously unseen official figures obtained by The Tab show a 108 per cent rise in students suspending their studies on mental health and medical grounds in the last decade, and a ten-fold rise in those terminating their course early for the same reason.

Of the 59 universities nationwide who responded to a Freedom of Information request from The Tab, 70 per cent recorded a rise in the last year in students taking an LOA for three months or longer or dropping out, in 2017-2018, citing health as the reason. Almost one third have seen a rise in every one of the last five years. 

The exclusive findings have prompted the National Union of Students to warn that universities are “discriminating against” the most vulnerable on campus by “misusing” internal policies.

‘We’re imposing a suspension on you’

Many of the students suspended for their mental health difficulties under universities’ ‘fitness to study’ and ‘fitness to practice’ procedures only find out with a formal letter or email, a process The Tab has been told is often devoid of any physical contact with staff.

In Ruth Day’s case, a letter, seen by The Tab, arrived from the University of Bristol out of the blue when she was at her lowest point with her mental health. 

Bristol Uni has been the focus of national attention following 13 suspected student suicides in the last two years, and was pressured to start sharing data with the parents of students flagged as vulnerable – warning signs such as low attendance – following campaigning by bereaved parent James Murray.

His son, first year UoB student Ben Murray, died aged 19 just hours after he met his dad for lunch. What his dad didn’t know is he had barely been to any lectures and, like Ruth, had been ordered to leave his student halls. 

The letter to Ruth, addressed from Professor Guy Orpen, Bristol University deputy vice-chancellor and provost, reads: “As there is considerable concern regarding your current state of health and its impact on your fellow students and staff within the hall, after much deliberation I have decided to impose a temporary suspension under the Fitness to Study Policy. I feel that you need more support than the University is able to provide.”

It goes on to say that a “full psychiatric report” would be ordered by the university, adding: “In the meantime, you are suspended from all University premises. This includes Goldney Hall. The Hall will contact your parents and make arrangements for you to be collected. You will be allowed a reasonable time to pack your bags.”

For years, the institution’s “fitness to study procedure” allowed a panel to decide whether a student should be suspended – and any counsellors supporting the student were “not part of the decision-making process”.

In October, bosses finally announced plans to change the policy following a backlash from campaigners, including allowing those suspended to stay in halls and on campus. However, The Tab understands that the policy document has not been formally changed, meaning students are worried the new pledges may not be carried out in practice.

Bristol University says the policy is only enacted as “a last resort” for “when we have genuine and serious concerns for a student’s welfare and our ability to keep them safe.”

In response to The Tab, Bristol said: “We are sorry for any undue upset and stress the letter caused and if the student has any outstanding concerns we would be very happy to meet with her again.” 

It added: “We understand that the circumstances surrounding the need to enact the policy are often very difficult and sensitive, and we are committed to working closely with students to review and continuously improve our arrangements.”

In the last academic year, 93 UoB students dropped out of university for mental health reasons, a figure that has more than doubled since 2015. At York University, 178 students temporarily or permanently withdrew in 2017-2018, compared to 92 in 2013.

For those who claim they were forced to defer by their uni, the impacts are long lasting. “It hit me really badly, I felt alone and isolated and thought I’d ruined all my university friendships,” Ruth said.

“Even now it’s still affecting me,” she says. “I’m scared to reach out to wellbeing services and talk to my friends. It’s the suspension, the fear of it.”

‘I was evicted from halls after getting back from A&E’ 

It was a similar story for one former student at London’s Queen Mary University, who wished to remain anonymous. He told The Tab how he was “evicted” from his student accommodation the morning after admitting himself to A&E because he could not stop self-harming.

He woke to a letter, seen by The Tab, which invites him to a meeting that afternoon regarding “the incident which occurred in the early hours of this morning which poses a health and safety risk to staff and other students” in his hall of residence. 

He told The Tab: “The meeting came and I was evicted from student accommodation. I cried and got angry and I was told this was unnecessary and that I had myself to blame.” 

He was then sent an email with a “formal notice to quit your residential accommodation”, seen by The Tab, telling him, “you will not be allowed to reside in Queen Mary residences in the future either as a resident or guest of a resident”.

It goes on to warn that his “failure” to meet his residential guidelines, through suffering with his mental health, “will also be detrimental to any future landlord reference requests”.

The student said: “I was actually told that if I could manage to find alternative accommodation, then I was free to continue my course. But if they were honestly expecting me to find a nice room in a house with strangers in the east end of London for under £200 a week in my current mental state, they obviously had no experience dealing with students with mental health.”

The student was forced back home, bringing the added struggle of having “everything” about his mental health challenges exposed to his parents, after years of trying to hide it. His appeal was rejected and he was not allowed to return to Queen Mary the following academic year, so he went to another uni through clearing.

Queen Mary University said the wellbeing of its students is “an absolute priority”.

The institution added: “We are fully committed to the #stepchange programme for mental health across the sector and we encourage students to use our comprehensive wellbeing support programme, which offers help from counsellors, welfare advisers, mental health advisers, residential support and student support embedded in academic schools.”

In the academic year to 2017, 3,580 students dropped out of British universities on “health” grounds, the highest in a decade. Those leaving their courses for “personal” reasons hit the highest in seven years last year – a total of 14,690 undergraduates, postgraduates and research students – making health and personal grounds the respective fifth and third most common reasons for university drop outs.

But all but three of the 135 universities contacted by The Tab merged mental and physical health under a general “health” category, or with wider issues including finance in a “personal” group, as this is all that the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) requires.

When The Tab reached out to 135 universities, only Exeter, York, Plymouth, and the University of London held data on mental health drop outs. Since then, VICE has found that number has increased to eight.

This means almost every university in the UK has no data keeping track of how many students are leaving campus for mental health issues, only able to rely on individual case files to track those taking a year out.

‘I felt I wasn’t worth anyone’s time’

In a third case, Ruth Fox, 20, never returned to Hertfordshire University after being suspended for a year under the “fitness to study” policy following several hospital visits, in crisis over her mental health.

“My university completely washed their hands of me,” Ruth told The Tab. “I had a meeting with the university head lecturer and safeguarding lead and they made the decision for me that I would leave university.

“They told me that ‘we don’t have the resources to support you’. I’m having to carry on paying bills and my rent when they forced me out.

“I just felt unsupported and unloved and like I wasn’t really worth anyone’s time,” says Ruth.

In response to Ruth Fox’s story, Geri Ward, Dean of Students, said student mental health was “extremely important”, adding: “We always act as quickly as we can to help students who need our support whether it be their first experience of mental health difficulties or a longer term condition. 

“We welcome students taking time out to get the support they need to recover and get back to strength to be able to resume their studies effectively. 

“The University risk-assesses the urgency of any situation and can support students with mental health issues in a number of ways. Where there is a deferral specifically on mental health grounds, all individuals effected (sic) have continual access to the University’s health and wellbeing services including a dedicated counselling team.”

 Universities are ‘misusing’ policies to ‘discriminate’

In response to The Tab’s findings, NUS disability officer Piers Wilkinson warned that universities are at risk of “discriminating against” the most vulnerable on campus by “misusing” internal policies.  

He added: “We have had ongoing concerns that fitness to study procedures can be misused. We are aware that there is an ongoing issue with students who are in acute mental health crisis are being discharged from hospital to their student accommodation as a ‘place of safety’, when the managers of these buildings are ill-equipped to support a student in these circumstances.

 “Ultimately it isn’t about ticking boxes but knowing students on campus or in further education can flag their concerns and seek the help they need inside or outside of their establishments.”

Student Minds said: “We have heard instances of students being told they can’t be on university property during leave, or being sent home and then facing huge delays in accessing help in their home city – to address this, there needs to be well considered plans in place with the student to ensure the period of leave is supported.”

Universities UK insisted that mental health is a “priority” for institutions, they “cannot address these challenges by themselves”, prompting the formation of a task force working with the NHS – which includes James Murray, Ben’s dad.

The University of Bristol said: “We understand that the circumstances surrounding the need to enact the policy are often very difficult and sensitive, and we are committed to working closely with students to review and continuously improve our arrangements.

“We are sorry for any undue upset and stress the letter caused and if the student has any outstanding concerns we would be very happy to meet with her again.”

The University of Hertfordshire and Queen Mary University said supporting students with mental health issues was an “absolute priority” and said they invest in a wide range of support services.

If you’re struggling with a mental health issue, or know someone who is, please contact the Samaritans helpline on 116 123 or contact your university’s counselling service.