Four Bristol students share their experiences with student mental health services

“I feel so let down”

There is no doubt that there is currently a mental health epidemic in the UK’s university campuses.

At Bristol, the University’s mental health counselling has frequently come under fire for not providing an adequate service.

To gain a better understanding of the situation we spoke to some students who were willing to share their experiences with Bristol’s student counselling to explore if UOB is really doing enough to help students struggling with their mental health.

All 4 students have chosen to keep their identities anonymous.

Person A: Law student, 2nd year

In first year I was suffering from an eating disorder and mood swings, which progressed into bad periods of depression. I dismissed my friends’ advice and avoided going to the counselling service for months, until I felt like I was really desperate.

When I did eventually request a session, I was warned straight away how little there was available, which nearly put me off trying further. After eventually filling out their questionnaire, I was told it could be several weeks until I heard whether I could speak to anyone.

I eventually got a 50-minute assessment: my main issue was extreme moods swings, as I could be fine for a while, and then suddenly feel so low that I felt like a completely different person. This seemed to pose a problem in the 50-minute session, as the counsellor was only seeing me at an ‘okay’ time and I felt like they didn’t really believe me about how bad the bad times were.

I mentioned to the counsellor that in these low periods I was beginning to have suicidal thoughts. Despite admitting this, and explaining that I worried for my safety as to what I might do when these low moods took over, when the assessment came to end I was told my problems weren’t sufficiently serious for them to offer more support, but to arrange another assessment if I felt I was getting worse – difficult bearing in mind the several week waiting list! On a later day when I was feeling particularly bad, I tried to go to a drop-in session, which are supposed to be accessible with no prior booking. However when I arrived, I was still told there were no spaces.

It worries me that someone can disclose that they were feeling suicidal, yet their condition can still apparently not be serious enough to justify help. I understand there are problems with resources, but such a high volume of people should not be being turned away.

Person B: Biochemistry student, 2nd year

After spending sixth form and first year in a deep depression I eventually started counselling at the beginning of second year. To be honest, I didn’t believe it would work: I was partly going out of curiosity, as if to confirm to myself my negative perception of counselling. In the end, however, the experience itself was totally eye-opening, and agreeing to go to the sessions was the best decision I have ever made.

The sessions changed how I thought on a day-to-day basis, changed the way I interacted with people, and made me aware of my negative thought patterns that I didn’t even realise I had. I genuinely believe counselling, the doctors at student health, and the service in general saved my life. I know that others have had bad experiences, but I can only speak for myself when I say that student counselling has done everything possible for me, and more. However, it upsets me to hear that other students aren’t coming away with the same positive experiences as me. I don’t know why this is, but I wish everyone felt like they received the same standard of care when they contact student counselling.

Person C: Languages student, 2nd year

I was diagnosed as having moderate depression and anxiety around November. The GP I spoke to was very understanding, and she told me to try get a session immediately. Upon completing the assessment form, was told that they would try their best to get back to me within 10 days.

I was eventually offered an assessment session: a day after the date I had planned to return home for Christmas. I explained this to student counselling, but rather than reschedule me a day or two earlier, they offered me a telephone assessment. In hindsight I think a telephone assessment is a ridiculous idea: phone calls are impersonal in nature, and I find it insane that my mental wellbeing was assessed without a counselor ever even talking to me in person.

When I did have this telephone assessment, I admitted that I had lost half a stone from barely sleeping and eating, and that I was also resorting to self-harm. The counsellor wanted to know if my studies were being affected, to which I replied honestly, no. While I was finding little interest in my usual hobbies, I found doing work an escape from feeling low as it gave me something else to entirely focus and concentrate on – a coping mechanism. I was told that my symptoms weren’t severe enough to warrant me going on the waiting list for counselling, and anyway, even if they were, I would be facing a 6-week waiting list minimum.

I feel so let down by student counselling, as it basically seemed like as my studies weren’t being affected, I was unlikely to affect the university’s image r.e failure/drop-out rates, therefore I wasn’t a priority for them to help. I’m sure they won’t cite this as a criterion themselves, but that is really how they made me feel.

Person D: Law student, 2nd year

I had to wait a few months from when I had first filled out the online form, before Student Counselling contacted me saying I could arrange my first appointment. My reason for wanting counselling sessions in the first place was that my eating disorder and depression had pushed me to the point of going back home very often and considering dropping out of uni altogether.

One thing I disliked very much about the actual sessions once I’d started with them was how everything was deemed to be okay if I wasn’t actually going to harm myself or make plans for suicide. I had to fill in an online questionnaire at the start of every session, which consisted of about 30 questions, and at the end my risk of harming myself was discussed. Most of the time I didn’t actually want to harm myself, but I would lie awake panicking for ages on some nights, waste afternoons feeling too low to do anything at other times, and engage in self destructing behaviours; yet I felt like these things were taken less seriously.

The counsellor I saw seemed like a caring person but she honestly seemed out of her depth and not in touch with what student lifestyles are like nowadays. She didn’t really have anything to say that would help other than the generic: ‘drink less’ and ‘don’t do drugs’ and ‘avoid people who make you feel bad about yourself’ (easier said than done). I stopped the sessions after having about three, as I didn’t feel like they were helpful.

What conclusions can be drawn from these experiences? It is widely accepted that counselling itself isn’t suited for everyone, but it is very difficult to find out if you are someone who could be benefited by counselling when waiting lists and assessment processes are causing such a barrier in the first place.

A 6-week minimum wait to be seen by a counselor is a dangerously long time for many people; especially as building up the courage to ask for help may already have taken weeks itself.

Fortunately, following recent events, the university pledged to invest a further £1 million a year into improving student support, with a review to be completed in the spring.

If you feel you are struggling with your mental health and need to talk to someone, please do not let this article discourage you from seeking help: but bear in mind there are more options available in Bristol than just the university student counselling service.

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “We are sorry if any of our students feel they have experienced difficulties with accessing our support or with the quality of the service received. The welfare of our students and staff continues to be our highest priority. We have increased staffing levels in our support services and have committed to invest an additional £1 million per year to provide wellbeing support for students in each academic school, but we are keen to hear feedback on what further we can do. Students are welcome to join our Student Enhancement Advisory Group /student-counselling/your-feed back/ to help shape the services we offer.”