‘I did not show up to class for the entirety of last term and nobody noticed’: A student speaks out about mental health at Bristol University

An open, honest and raw first hand account

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My first year at Bristol had been one of the best years of my life. I moved into a fantastic hall of residence filled with fantastic, like-minded students, and a proactive pastoral care team who dedicated almost all of their personal time to their students.

Freshers week of second year was just as brilliant. I joined the nights out, I caught up with old friends, and it was really wonderful. But from week two, it all started to go downhill.

By the end of my second week back in Bristol, I had been to the first class of each of my units, I had got the essential information for the start of the year, and I had seen a few people that I had missed in Freshers week. But that’s where it ended. I suddenly found myself completely exhausted, just physically and emotionally drained in every way. That weekend I just shut myself up in my house and that’s when my isolation started.

From the eight weeks on from that following Monday, I barely left my house. I just physically couldn’t. I’d wake up in time for a class, but the tiredness and my desire to hide from the world was just overwhelming every single time. I didn’t see any friends in that time – I was caught in a web of social anxiety, something that I had never experienced before. The fear that I would be judged for anything and everything that I did, that I would be humiliated for turning up to a class for the first time in weeks, that everyone I’d known from the previous year would just ignore me…

I physically and emotionally hid from that fear. I’d wake up very late in the day, and then I’d spend the rest of it in a haze of marijuana and takeaways. I declined invitations in some delusion that they were only extended out of pity. There was one time I had even got fully dressed to go to a birthday party. I had bought a gift, a bottle of rose to down at pres, but I couldn’t make it out of the front door. And nothing like that had ever happened to me before.

In all of that time, I did not get a single personal email from the university. Not one teacher emailed asking where I had been for the previous X number of weeks, my personal tutor didn’t check in at all, not a soul had noticed that I hadn’t been there. I finally went to see my personal tutor when I realised just how far behind I had fallen, and she didn’t have a clue how to react. She asked if I was getting help (I responded “yes”, but I was lying). She then directed me to speak to all my teachers individually, but offered no introduction to help smooth a transition that had been terrifying me all semester. I just about managed to hand in my essays, but aside from that I was left alone.

Over Christmas I realised I needed help, so I decided to apply for Student Counselling. I use the word “apply” deliberately, because there is no guarantee of one-on-one support, especially in any timely manner.

It took two weeks to get a provisional assessment and a further six weeks before I was offered regular counselling. That’s eight weeks waiting to receive any kind of help or support. In those eight weeks, I could have taken my own life. And in four months, nobody at the University of Bristol ever even asked. Waiting times for Student Counselling have increased on last year, but all the University seems to do is make excuses by claiming that the waiting time is in line with the national average.

There are many people who are confused by the recent tragedies, who simply cannot understand how someone could either reach the point of wanting to end their own lives, and/or who cannot comprehend how the University could let it happen. With the University currently investing £300m in a new campus by Temple Meads, why are they letting current students fall by the wayside?

The answer is simple: the university is not addressing the problems at the heart of the mental health epidemic. The decision makers on the University Executive team have absolutely no clue what goes on every day in their own schools, their own halls of residence, and on their own campus. This word has been very big on campus this year: community. Feeling like you belong, feeling like other people around you are just the same as you, feeling comfortable enough to share what’s going on in your life, or even in your own head. That doesn’t come from talking to a professional, that comes from talking to someone you know and trust.

These communities are not created by corporate language. Who knows what “whole institution approach” means?! More often than not, Hugh Brady’s emails are almost exactly the same as the ones we received following previous tragedies, directing us to staff who can “signpost” us to help, suggesting services with 6 week waiting lists, and informing us of this shiny investment in services, but with no real explanation as to what it will achieve and how it will help the crisis on campus today. They claim to be moving from “reactive” to “proactive” pastoral care, but how staff can establish relationships with students on a shift system, let alone organise community events, is just beyond me.

I have one suggestion for universities across the country: have a centralised attendance register. Make every student sign in to each class they attend, either by hand or by tapping in with a student card. That way, Personal Tutors or Wellbeing Advisors can check the attendance of their students and be made aware of students who haven’t been to class in a week. More often than not, low attendance is an early sign of mental health issues. If Personal Tutors or Wellbeing Advisors can check the attendance of their students, they will be able to detect problems early enough to get the student the help they need. It would be so simple to implement, require little extra work on the part of staff, and make such a massive difference to struggling students.

I am very lucky that I was able to bring myself back with the help of some extraordinary new friends made through a common cause. Counselling was extraordinarily helpful, but feeling wanted, part of a group, and, above all, accepted enabled me to face my other issues head-on, and reintegrate with university life.

I was let down by the University of Bristol, and many more students are being let down much worse every single day than I was. “Proactive” care is not about having staff on a shift system, it’s about having staff who genuinely care about their students, and therefore will notice when someone is struggling and doesn’t know how to reach out for help.

This article was written by a current Bristol undergraduate. The University's response can be found below.

Mark Ames, Director of Student Services at the University of Bristol, said: "It’s concerning to hear that any student is dissatisfied with the pastoral care they’ve received at the University. From September 2018, our new Residential Life and Student Wellbeing Services will introduce trained staff into residences and academic schools whose primary role will be to support student wellbeing and mental health."

"We will always prioritise support for those students with the most urgent need and students who are in crisis. To meet the growing demand for long-term counselling support and urgent mental health care we have increased the number of GP mental health appointments available, including same day appointments, as well as providing over 1,800 hours of additional counselling sessions at peak times including extending weekend services."

"As the University closes over holiday periods such as Christmas, there will inevitably be a slight delay in the time it takes to assess students requesting help. We urge anyone who finds themselves in a time of crisis to access support from specialist services such as The Samaritans, which offers excellent 24/7 support."

"With regards to keeping track of student attendance, systems are in place within individual Schools but we have to balance the need to identify patterns of absence with student feedback saying they do not wish to feel policed. Input from the new Wellbeing Advisors and students themselves will be invaluable as we develop and improve these systems."

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.

If you wish to get help, a list of all the Bristol services open to students can be found here. Samaritans have an invaluable helpline- 116 123- that is open 24/7. Their website can be found here.