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1st October 2018

Universities are still failing to address mental health

Sophie Marriott argues that the University of Bristol’s recently announced scheme to safeguard students who suffer from mental health problems exemplifies the apprehension to confront the issue of suicides on UK campuses.
Universities are still failing to address mental health
Bristol University Campus. Photo:AdrianPingstone@wikimediacommons

The provision of mental health support at Universities in the UK has been widely criticised for its failure to reach those most in need. Reports by the ONS suggest that 146 students in the UK killed themselves in 2016, which was a shocking increase of 56% since 2007. It is therefore imperative that something changes in the attitudes towards mental wellbeing on campuses. Yet Universities remain lethargic on the issue, and when they do act their schemes are frequently misguided and clunky.

This is exemplified by the recent announcement by Bristol University that they are introducing an opt-in scheme for tutors to have the freedom to contact the guardians of students they feel are at risk. It follows the suicide of a 19-year old English student who took his own life in his first year at Bristol. After his death, his parents found out that he had been missing seminars and lectures and was close to being thrown off his course, yet none of his tutors questioned his rapidly declining performance. This tragedy displays a complete failure of student support networks. However, to simply open another channel of formal third-party communication overlooks the possibility for a longer term solution to the rising rates of suicide amongst students and young people.

The issue of mental health at University is deeply ingrained into the culture of student life and will not be solved simply by intervening sooner in individual cases. There is undoubtedly space for wanting a more open conversation surrounding mental health at University. However, going over the head of a person who is suffering, to their older and wiser family figures, is a blatant step backwards in our treatment of depression. Whilst family frequently play a crucial role in recovery from mental illness, especially for students who may well be struggling with homesickness, Bristol University’s assumption that a student’s guardian is their best port of call on these issues reveals a deeply patronising dismissal of young people’s self-awareness.

Arguably, the jump to contact someone who supposedly speaks on behalf of a student, rather than speak to them directly, is demonstrative of the cyclical referral system that those suffering from mental health issues can find themselves trapped in. Depression often ends up being treated like an increasingly weighty boulder to be passed around a circle of concern rather than ever actually being broken up. Whilst it may be easy to blame an overly complex healthcare system in which waiting lists for counselling services are long and do not easily cater for students registered with GPs away from their term-time addresses, the real issue is the apprehension to tackle emotions head on.

The case of the boy at Bristol is so heart-breaking because there was nobody who took the time to notice that his behaviour may have been indicative of a problem in his life. Even more, that nobody thought it was their responsibility. The new scheme at Bristol – to simply offload the problem onto the family of a student – does not address the issue of ignoring the suffering of those around you. It is just another symptom of society which is afraid to confront another person’s struggle. In reality, Universities should be looking to cultivate a culture of support between students, staff, and teaching staff that kicks in with emotional support before it gets too far.

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