Enough: student welfare at Bristol needs to be prioritised

It’s time for change

Contrary to the popular myth that your time at university is going to be the best three years of you life, this is not always the case. It can be gruelling, frustrating and isolating – mental illness flourishes in this environment.

Therefore, when it was reported in various media outlets that three first year students had committed suicide this term the tragedy rocked the university. For many of us who are students it was a tragedy that saddened, but did not necessarily shock. It was only a matter of time before this happened, and the university has done very little to prevent it.

The university’s recent “come to the edge” campaign, which the university was heavily publicising around the time of the suicides only puts further emphasis on how thoughtless the university can be in regards to this issue.

One parent of a student told the Bristol Post that “you could forgive them for a rubbish strap line but, in light of the recent suicides, I deem it to be in rather bad taste and I’m surprised it wasn’t pulled immediately”.

Mental health in the country is in crisis, and to a large extent this is due to funding cuts and understaffing. To think that being at a big fancy Russell Group university will somehow mitigate the impact this is having is incredibly naïve. I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but even I can tell that less money and less staff means that less people will get help.

The student body have been saying for years that the way mental health is approached does not work. You can talk to me about the sophisticated networks of pastoral support, but ultimately that is not really the point. Three people have died, and that happened for a reason.

I appreciate that this is a stressful time for the student support services and the Student Health Service, but something has got to give. Take us seriously when we say that we are not ok, and learn to identify the warning signs.

The problem is that there are a lot of people with complex issues who are not very good at seeking help, and so fall prey to isolation and mental illness. But despite this, a lot of them are very high functioning.

It is much more complex than a load of troubled teenagers bringing their problems to university: it is that we are let loose in an environment that is not designed to give effective support and understanding to those with mental health issues.

If we take the example of me, then anecdotally it might assist in demonstrating the scope of this issue.

In my late teens I was traumatised from years of abuse and violence and it took six months for me to get referred to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). Bulimic, depressed, self-harming teenage girls are pretty commonplace, but like so many others I was good at hiding it. But the worst part is that I was one of the lucky ones, because accessing these services is part of a sick postcode lottery.

When someone with pre-existing mental health issues comes to university, they are far more likely to be at risk. Obviously this does depend on how their illness manifests itself, but it is a well known fact among those of us that went through CAMHS that once you turn 18 the state promptly dumps you and expects you to navigate your own way through adult mental health services.

This is only made worse when you move to a totally new place where you don’t know anyone or what services are available. For the most part you are left to it. When I was a fresher in halls, we were told to register with student health, told who the pastoral team were, and that was about it.

Pre-existing mental health issues are irrefutably significant, but the factors of isolation and loneliness can contribute towards a previously unaffected student developing a mental health problem while at university. This is extremely common, as many mental illnesses start to manifest during early adulthood, and this is why it is important that events like Mind Your Head continue to take place. Given the aforementioned events that have taken place this term, perhaps they would be better placed at the beginning of the academic year?

Nevertheless, I am extremely doubtful that the university staff members with pastoral responsibilities have been given sufficient training when it comes to dealing with and assisting a suicidal person. I know what it means to have a suicidal person close to you: the panic you feel when you pick up the phone and you don’t know if they are dead or alive, making excuses to check up on them and the suspense in between.

Talking someone down from ending it all can feel like an impossible task. Because they believe wholeheartedly that taking their own life is the only option left, the only way to take the pain away. Expecting senior residents (who are also students that the university has a duty of care towards) to take on all that is not only unfair but grossly irresponsible on the part of the university.

A story we ran a few days ago exhibits how bad this irresponsibility is, you can read it here.

To the self proclaimed GP in the comments of my original article reporting on this who said that I was ‘insensitive and insulting to the pastoral teams’ – don’t you dare tell me that I don’t have a right to be angry about what happened to these students.

It could have been any of us, and the fact that their deaths should have been prevented is irrefutable. I was simply reporting on the anger and frustration that a large portion of the student population feel in regards to this issue.

So let’s stop getting up in arms about the system and how it’s broken. Let’s fix it and collaborate so that the next time a vulnerable person gets to the point where they believe that suicide is the only option it doesn’t end like this.