‘Bristol University is sweeping student mental health problems under the rug’

Two previous Senior Residents speak out

The three recent suicides by freshers in halls at Bristol University have brought national attention to a local tragedy. It’s also shone a light on the pastoral care available to first years.

In the days after the suicides, The Tab were contacted by two former Senior Residents, who claim to have seen first hand the levels of negligence and apathy among some of the university’s staff when it comes to student welfare.

Typically post-graduates, Senior Residents are older students who live in university accommodation with first years. One of their job’s primary functions is to ensure the well-being of the first year students who are in their care.

Today Senior Residents claim the students tasked with looking after freshers who might be struggling with mental health are poorly trained and poorly treated by university staff. Some say they were bullied out of their positions, and others say how they resigned when they suffered from problems themselves. It’s alleged that when they tried to approach officials with problems, they felt that they were not listened to and the issue was swept under the rug, claiming uni staff would treat confidential information about suffering first years as mere “idle gossip”.

Due to our concern to protect the identities of those who were involved, particularly vulnerable students, certain details that might identify a particular student or students have been deliberately omitted.

For ease of reading we are calling them Senior Resident A and Senior Resident B, so as to distinguish their grievances and allegations.

Senior Resident A:

“I want to make it clear that we all loved being SRs. We loved being there for the students – helping them, supporting them, and getting to know them so they were more comfortable to approach us when needed. The students openly told us just how much they found us to be easy to talk to, fun and supportive.

“During my time as a Senior Resident, I witnessed a level of unprofessional neglect from Hall staff towards both students and Senior Residents – myself included. In the academic year 2015/16, three Senior Residents resigned due to continuous bullying, resulting in the students being left without a sufficient Senior Resident team over the Summer Exam period (the most stressful time of the year for many freshers).”

Several incidents regarding a fresher who was having a nervous breakdown were, according to this Senior Resident, dealt with crassness and insensitivity by several members of the SR team, saying that: “This was not spoken about with the level of professionalism or compassion that is not just expected, but required by an SR.”

The Senior Resident went on to talk about “the inappropriate way in which strictly confidential, sensitive and personal information was being treated as idle gossip by the Deputy Warden and an SR” – an issue in which mental health is a serious factor if the gossip had travelled far enough to reach the person it was about.

“This was a highly dangerous attitude to have when in a pastoral care position. Our efforts to tackle the problems within the SCR were in vain, each problem was brushed under the carpet and our words were falling on deaf ears.”

Moreover, Senior Resident A described a troubling approach to Senior Residents themselves: “Due to SRs being students themselves, the duty of care that the university has for its students does in fact include SRs. Therefore when the Warden told them that they were “not suitable for the position of SR, with one of the reasons being an issue with attending formal dinners due to an eating disorder” it was yet another example of an absence of this duty of care.

When problems worsened in the halls, two of the SRs were driven to meeting with a university official to “discuss serious concerns over the developing issues within the Senior Resident team.” Unfortunately  all the SRs’ efforts to tackle the problems within the team were all in vain: “each problem was brushed under the carpet and our words were falling on deaf ears.”

“Until a suitable Warden and Deputy Warden are appointed to each and every hall, the level of care given to students will continue to decline. I would like to know just how bad things need to get before the university stop sweeping problems under the carpet, and actually admit that drastic changes are desperately needed?”

Senior Resident B:

Senior Resident B also voiced their concerns in regards to how the pastoral services approach student welfare: “If we’re talking about one in four with mental health issues, are they suggesting we have a Big Brother state? They’re ignorant to the size of the problem, and/or they’ve never had a genuine conversation with a student facing mental health issues.”

Senior Resident B’s previous experiences with students abusing alcohol whilst on anti-depressants were dismissed by the Warden and Deputy Warden, who were apparently ignorant of regular patterns of student behaviour:

“I know that alcohol is very often consumed despite knowing the risks, due to feelings of isolation and wanting to feel like a normal student, seeking a temporary release from anxiety, and the standard drinking away of sorrows. I said that this was not unusual behaviour at all. Instead of a futile attempt to watch alcohol consumption, genuine pastoral support and encouragement to counselling services might be much more beneficial and helpful for anyone who was suffering. But before I could say anything, I was quickly silenced by both the Deputy and the Warden who said that this was very unusual indeed.”

Both Senior Residents said that their training in regards to this issue was sparse to say the least:

“Our training as Senior Residents last year involved one training session with the counselling service, which included an exercise where we were told to separate ourselves by eye colour, subject, gender and then think about how it makes us feel. Following this, we were told to get into pairs and practice listening for five minutes in turn. We were told to signpost and where, but that was the sum total of our official knowledge. The same amount was devoted to fire safety.

“We are vastly under-equipped, and many feel that if the help is not coming from the Deputies and Wardens, then we are all that is left. While I was there I heard of three suicide notes left under just one warden. A connection from my old halls also told me that there had been a successful suicide in one of the halls in that year 2015/16.

“The thing is, if under just one warden there are three suicide notes left (even if that was a freak amount), and if from multiple well-connected sources I am hearing of other cases, the problem should already have been noticeable; the problem is growing. The university has not taken the warning signs seriously.”

The University Press Office released this statement in response to our stories:

“It goes without saying that we take student health and well-being very seriously and would strongly urge any students who are feeling anxious, depressed or lonely to seek support. Our Student Counselling Service and Students’ Health Service are well placed to help students. We also have a wide range of other services in place, such as the Big White Wall which offers online support 24/7.

“Senior Residents and Wardens are often the first port of call for students. We provide them with an intensive three-day training programme with external experts and specialists from across the university.

“This includes building knowledge and understanding of key areas of student welfare and developing skills in communication to help those who may require support by giving advice or signposting to professional services.

“The issues raised were fully inversigated last year. There is no clear evidence to substantiate the allegations made but as a result specialist training around confidentiality, data protection and escalating issues in a more timely manner have been introduced into the programme. We’re sorry to hear that these students have unresolved concerns and we invite them to come and talk to us again. Their feedback will form an important part of our ongoing review into support services for students.”

It does appear that the university are making efforts to reform the system from the inside, however students have not seen any changes or improvements to their welfare being implemented. A big, public overhaul is long overdue.

Student welfare must be the university’s top priority, and they should be held to account if their system fails.

If you are experiencing mental health problems and wish to get help, a list of all the Bristol services open to students can be found here.

Samaritans have an invaluable helpline that is open 24/7. Their website can be found here.

If you are experiencing any kind of mental health issue which you believe is causing you dangerous levels of stress – please, do not suffer alone. The help is ready and available for those who require it.