‘Parents are asking awkward questions about how safe Bristol is’: An academic condemns the university’s response to student deaths

We’re being dubbed ‘the suicide capital of the Russell Group’


Reading the latest press articles on the recent student deaths and looking back over the press coverage of the nine Bristol University suicides in some twenty months, I can’t help but wonder if the University Press Office and more importantly the Student Services Division have had some kind of collective lobotomy.

The University is currently ‘encouraging those who need help to come forward’, apparently. Anyone with even half an hour’s experience of student support, academic or pastoral, knows that people with serious problems don’t spontaneously ‘come forward’. They sit on them, they hide them, they’re often ashamed of them – and it doesn’t matter how wrong it is to be ashamed, shame is shame and prohibits openness. If they’re robust, they try to shove their anxieties to the back of their minds and get on with the rest of life. If they’re not (and so many aren’t, through no fault of their own), they are gradually overwhelmed and even paralysed by their problems. Some are very vocal about their difficulties and are therefore in some ways easier to help. But most suppress them from public view. They might well consciously or unconsciously give signs to their friends (if they have any, which is itself often part of the problem), but they won’t often give these signs to their academic tutors, their personal tutors or their hall mentors. International students present quite distinct difficulties, which are often even harder to spot because of the reticence that goes hand-in-hand with lack of fluency in English.

However, the University’s published response to the two student deaths in the last two weeks does not even acknowledge any of this, much less engage with it. It reads: ‘our thoughts are with the deceased students’ families’, ‘please respect their privacy’, ‘we are saddened by this tragic news’, and ‘we encourage any students or staff who are affected to contact University wellbeing services’. Helpfully (not!), those who might want to contact such support are referred to ‘our staff and student pages’ (with not even a hyperlink). Apparently, the University of Bristol’s answer to its well-publicized student suicide problem is ‘check the web and email someone’. Whether that someone will be able to get back to you in time to make a difference – with waiting times ‘normally’ of a minimum of six weeks for Counselling Services, and much longer at peak (e.g. exam) times – seems not to be something that the University is prepared to address, either in public or internally.

How is this more than platitudinous waffle? What action is the University taking to help these people? Most press releases spout the usual guff about a £1 million investment in ‘mental health and wellbeing services’, but there are two problems with this. First, the £1 million was originally announced for ‘wellbeing services’ (whatever these are), and not for mental health support. There are no additional mental health professionals being recruited within this £1 million budget. Staff demands for a wholescale quantitative improvement of the mental health provision in the University have been ignored.

Second, of the 24 ‘wellbeing’ staff whose posts were advertised in October 2017 only 8 have been appointed. It’s now May, but they don’t yet have offices, they’ve had two weeks’ training, and now mostly sit and chat amongst themselves in a single room in the Wills Memorial Building because the channels of engagement with schools and departments are so poorly defined. How many academics have even heard of these teams? What are they actually being paid for? What will they be doing over the summer when there are very few students still in Bristol? Some Senior Tutors are actively resisting their involvement with students because of some spectacular gaffes in the initial weeks – like phoning a student’s parents for advice, which is illegal unless the student gives permission.

What is the £1 million being spent on? Can the University spell out in precise and unambiguous terms what its strategy is to combat the intensifying pace of student suicide and what practical measures it is taking to prevent future incidents? Can the University really justify the removal of senior live-in pastoral staff from halls of residence and the formation instead of anonymous ‘village-based’ teams in this climate?

UWE is reinstating wardens and senior teams in its residences on the advice of medical and mental health professionals. At a recent meeting between UoB, UWE, Bath and Bath Spa staff to discuss strategy for student support, the UoB chair refused to discuss the recent pastoral review despite calls from those present from the other universities to account for what was described by one clinical psychologist present as a ‘retrograde step’.

Mark Ames, Director of Student Services, owes the whole University community a full analysis of the worrying spate of student deaths that have led to Bristol being dubbed ‘the suicide capital of the Russell Group’. He needs to outline in clear terms the results of his Division’s investigation into what has happened and give an equally unambiguous account of the practical measures he is putting in place to reverse this shocking trend. Parents are asking awkward questions at Open Days about how safe Bristol is. And well they might. Mr Ames needs to set out his stall or go. Soon. Very soon. Certainly in time for the September intake.

This article was written by a member of an academic department at Bristol University before the most recent student death was announced on the 10th May 2018. The University's response can be found below.

We care passionately about the wellbeing of our students and staff and we are deeply saddened by the recent student deaths. We have to respect the wishes of the families in each case, many of whom wish for privacy. We also have a duty of care to remind students about the support that is in place for them both at the University and via crisis support charities and the NHS, which our recent communications have highlighted.

Mark Ames, Director of Student Services, said: "We are developing a whole institution approach to supporting student mental health and wellbeing, and we need the views and ideas of the whole institution."

"Reflecting global mental health trends, we have experienced a 20% increase in the number of students registering with the Student Counselling Service compared with the same period last year (2,739 students between August 2017 and March 2018), and an annual increase of 10% per annum over the last few years. The Student Wellbeing Service and other areas in the Student Services Division have experienced a similar increase in demand."

"In response, we have been expanding our services as rapidly as we can. We have:

-Appointed two specialist Mental Health Advisors to provide support to students with complex mental health needs. This has allowed us to work more quickly with those students with severe and enduring mental health difficulties

-Appointed eight additional wellbeing advisers to make a team of 15 staff, with an additional 18 to be appointed before the end of May. These staff provide front line mental health and wellbeing support to students, and the 24 advisers will physically work within Schools from September 2018. Those staff already appointed have had comprehensive training over an extended period. The Wellbeing Service has already supported over 750 students this year including working with 250 at the time of writing

-Increased the number of same day GP mental health appointments, and extended the length of appointments

-Provided extra counselling sessions at peak times, extending weekend services through the spring term."

"We have galvanised support from our external city partners, including Samaritans, the NHS and other third-sector groups such as Big White Wall and Papyrus. This year we also signed up to the Time to Change pledge, which reflects the comprehensive steps we are taking to address these challenges."

"National mental health leads from the NHS and Public Health England are actively engaged in the planning and development of our whole of institution approach and our response to recent deaths, and have been offering extensive support."

"We recognise that this is a tremendously complex area, and we are committed to continuing to grow the support available to support both students and staff. This is the key priority for the University."