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Students are being let down by universities’ provisions for mental health


British universities are facing a mental health crisis, and students risk slipping through the gaps due to a lack of coordination between academic institution and the NHS.

The most up-to-date study on student suicides found that between 2007 and 2016, student suicide rates increased by 56%, rising from 6.6 to 10.3 per 100,000 of the population.

Students are now more likely to take their own lives than young people in the general population.

In 2016, photography student Henry Curtis-Williams carried out suicide after being detained by police under the mental health act.

In an 18 month period between November 2016 and May 2018, the University of Bristol saw a spate of student suicides, where 10 students took their own lives or died suddenly.

Student suicides have markedly increased in the recession years, as financial problems, debt and increased pressure to battle it out for a finite number of graduate roles have piled stress on university students – particularly those without financial support from parents.

According to advocacy and research body Universities UK, over the past five years, 94% of universities have noted a ‘sharp increase’ in the number of people looking for support services.

Students are trying to access help, but are the services available for them?

We spoke to a number of current and former students about their experiences with seeking mental health support through their universities.

Han, 27

‘I was at uni and having depressive episodes and bad anxiety. One evening I felt completely lost and after drinking for hours on my own I ended up in A&E.

‘I begged them for help and told them I wasn’t going to leave unless I could speak to someone. However that never happened. I got sent home with not an ounce of support.

‘I feel as if there were the facilities at university I may not have ended up in hospital.’

Amanda, 57

‘My son tried to get help but it was late in the uni year (May or June time). He ended up unable to complete the year and lost that years fee. He now has a student loan for three years of useless time as he flunked out the following year.

‘He did get some help from university, but as it was end of term it was all too little too late. It’s very upsetting.

‘I knew there was something wrong as he rarely answered my calls or texts. My concern was that there were no safety checks by the uni for students, he just sat in his room staring at the walls and nobody at the uni thought to check on his welfare. Luckily he wasn’t suicidal just majorly depressed.

‘He was just 18. I seriously think he was too young, he was very young for his age and it was his first time away from home. It makes me so so sad.

‘I think the University of Kent should have realised that he wasn’t attending any lectures – at least his tutor should have known something was wrong.

‘I guess at the time I should have appealed so he could get a refund on his fees and retake the year but I had issues of my own at the time. Hindsight was a wonderful thing.’

(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co,uk)

Poppy*, 27

‘I was asking for mental health support the whole time I was at [the University of] Warwick.

‘The campus GP in my first year basically dismissed my anorexia and it had become much worse by the time I managed to get treatment on the NHS. My first year personal tutor was completely unhelpful and obviously didn’t want to waste his time on students who were struggling.

‘In second year, I’d just been diagnosed with a personality disorder in my second year and I needed help that targeted the new diagnosis, but I was too scared to tell the GP in case they didn’t take me seriously again.

‘Unfortunately I fell into an abusive relationship and between that and my struggles with eating disorders and a personality disorder, I was in a really terrible place. I overdosed three times in the space of a year.

‘I had to defer some exams and I’m convinced that I narrowly missed out on a first class degree because I’d struggled so much with my mental health. I was meant to have special circumstances consideration for my marks, but I don’t think my mental health or hospitalisations were taken into account at all.

‘It really didn’t feel like there was proper pastoral care available or anything to safeguard vulnerable students.’

Anna*, 19

‘I basically opened up to the uni about my mental health struggles when I launched an appeal for two of my modules which I passed, but knew I could’ve got better grades in if I wasn’t going through such a horrendous and difficult time.

‘The uni basically dismissed my mental health as well as my appeal, and made it sound as if I was lying just to get better grades, as well as claiming that I don’t have enough “evidence” to back up my mental illnesses, even though I provided a DSA eligibility letter and a doctor’s note.

‘Thanks to that experience, I now know I can’t trust the University of Leeds, or go to them for help, because they basically made it out as if I was lying about my struggles just to get more marks, which wasn’t the issue as I had passed those modules anyway and made it onto second year.’

A University of Leeds spokesperson said: ‘We work hard to support students throughout their time at Leeds, working with the students’ union and community partners, but of course consider adjustments to grades when there are mitigating circumstances: cases are considered on an individual basis, carefully taking into account all evidence available, and in accordance with fair, robust and transparent processes.’

Tom Frew, Senior Press and Media Relations Manager at the University of Warwick, told Metro.co.uk that the university provides an ‘extensive’ range of services for students, including 24/7 access to trained support staff for those living on campus.

‘The University’s Wellbeing Support Services also provide services designed to meet the appropriate needs of students – including drop-in sessions, pre-arranged specialist support sessions, emergency appointments, email counselling and accessible self-help resources and materials available online and 24/7 at the Library.

‘All new students are provided with written details of the Wellbeing Support Services available to them before they arrive on campus, and those living on campus in student accommodation will meet with Residential Life Tutors who are trained to further inform and explain the services available.

‘The University of Warwick has recently committed over £500k extra to support Wellbeing Support Services, including additional outreach workers alongside an enhanced range of services available to students and to support the work of Wellbeing Support Services.

‘The University of Warwick is committed to working with students to improve provision and seek new ways to provide support.’

The University of Kent told Metro.co.uk that the mental wellbeing of students is taken very seriously.

‘We have a Wellbeing Team offering free support to students experiencing distress arising from psychological, emotional or mental health issues. We offer help to students who are upset, confused or struggling with a problem and who think it might be helpful to discuss things with someone outside their circle of family and friends.

‘Among the services on offer are Wellbeing Advisors, who can visit students at a place of their choice, and Counselling sessions, giving students the time and space to discuss concerns. We offer crisis drop in sessions every weekday in term time when students can simply come to the wellbeing offices and be seen on the day.

‘We also run workshops on a regular basis to help students to learn and develop skills around wellbeing such as managing exam stress, overcoming procrastination, developing time management and presentation skills. Each academic school has a Student Support Officer or equivalent within the school who can also provide support.

‘In addition, we provide training to front line staff in the form of a Mental Health First Aid course; work with Kent Union (student union) to promote Mental Health Awareness and the creation of a Mental Health Planning Group and Nightline (student-led volunteer service trained by the Samaritans); have established a student mental health support group. Sessions include Mindfulness, stress and anxiety management, goal setting, coping strategies etc; and introduced procedures and guidance to support students with mental health difficulties whose behaviour gives the University cause for concern.

‘We also liaise closely with external agencies such as GPs, psychological therapy services, community mental health teams on local drug and alcohol services as well as voluntary sector organisations such as the Samaritans.

‘All Kent students also have access to the Big White Wall, a Care Quality Commission registered service recognised nationally through awards by the NHS and providing a safe environment overseen by qualified therapists.’

However, from their own testimonies and the increase in student suicides, it’s clear that students are still going unsupported at universities in Britain.

Without appropriate treatment, students with mental health problems cannot fulfill their academic potential. Learning is difficult when you’re held back by anxiety or depression or an eating disorder.

Academic institutions that do not see the wellbeing of students as their responsibility are failing them.

For many students, university is the first time that they will ever have lived away from home. Away from their previous support networks of friends and family, and faced with issues of loneliness, homesickness, academic pressures, bullying and the stress of making new friends, it’s little wonder that students experience mental health issues at university.

For £9,000 in fees per year, universities should be making sure that no student slips through the cracks and ends up suffering without support.

*Names have been changed.
To talk about mental health in a private, judgement-free zone, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.

MORE: Universities’ decision to outsource mental health services could be devastating for students

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