Editorial: Enough is enough, Bristol needs to do more to stop student deaths

Management must do more

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The Tab Bristol has never published an editorial before. But then we’ve never before seen a crisis like the current spate of student deaths.

In the twenty months since September 2016, there have been at least nine students who are believed to have taken their own lives at the University of Bristol, with two more cases at the University of the West of England. Although inquests are yet to be concluded or even opened in several of these tragic incidences, the picture is clear enough.

There is a crisis of morale at Bristol University. You can see it on social media in the incensed comments, outraged tweets and emotional paragraph-long statuses on Facebook. You can hear it in conversations in the library or the SU, exasperated exclamations of disgust mixed with sentiments of sadness or sorrow. You can feel it in the silence which hangs over such discussions: the incomprehension, the disbelief, the palpable sense of impotence and frustration at the inability to answer that simple question: "Why?", "why did they do this?", "why can’t we stop this?"

Anger is in the air. The impression felt by many students is that all too often their university is unable to deal with this crisis and the broader issues of adequate counselling and better mental health support. The focus on the new £300 million Temple Quarter campus- a project set to be concluded years after most students leave- is popularly ridiculed, scorned and held up by some to be an example of the university’s misjudged sense of priorities. Such a sentiment often takes the form of "if they can finance a new campus, why can’t they finance better mental health support?"

The Tab Bristol has always presumed good intentions on the part of the university. Talking to members of staff, it is clear that they too share in the collective sense of frustration, upset and anguish. Many in student services, academic departments and halls work hard night and day to sustain vulnerable students, usually to little credit or public recognition. Moreover, UoB’s current levels of mental health funding mean that a 20-year-old studying here could, in theory, be expected to receive more support and better support than an average city resident would access through their local NHS. So how is it that at least nine men and women have taken their own life at UoB since September 2016?

The problems facing Bristol students are, in many respects, no different from those confronting their peers at universities across the country. Nationally, the number of students seeking counselling has gone up by 50 per cent in the past five years. More students are arriving at university with anxiety and depression than ever before. Suicides are dispiritingly prevalent at virtually every higher education institution across the UK, with York University experiencing five in twelve months during 2015-16.

Yet such contextual factors should not be used as an excuse for inaction or inertia. Every national article features the much-touted claim of ‘£1 million extra funding for wellbeing services’. Such a claim means little to those waiting weeks or months for counselling, receiving impersonal emails that are no substitute for face to face support. Students deserve to be told where this money is going and how soon changes like the new Wellbeing Advisors can be expected to take effect. The real sense of grievance and anger needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency too, with the feedback from the mental health survey currently being circulated affording the university a precious chance to listen and learn from first-hand accounts.

The absence of community has been a recurring theme in many incidences of mental health problems. If the University of Bristol wants to rectify this, they need to explain better, act quicker, engage more and do so immediately.