Despite investment in services this year, students are increasingly concerned about mental health.
Photos: Matty Edwards
Demand for mental health support at the University of Bristol has risen sharply in recent years, the Cable can reveal, as students feeling increasingly let down by the services take action.
Data acquired by Freedom of Information requests reveals the number of referrals to the student counselling service rose by more than two-thirds in the last four years – from 1,600 in 2012/13 to 2,750 in 2016/17. There has also been a rise in students dropping out because of ‘psychological reasons’ – 80 in 2016/17.
During this four-year period, when demand for support rose and the total student population grew by 17%, the number of permanent counselling staff remained almost unchanged.
Bristol University has responded by investing in new services this academic year, including extra counselling sessions during exam times, but some students say more needs to be done.
Students have told the Cable about being turned away from counselling or waiting for months and a lack of communication between departments and parts of student services.
The issue of student mental health goes beyond Bristol, as the pressure to both succeed academically and to make the most of your time combine with the difficulty in accessing NHS mental health services that are underfunded and overstretched.
However, Bristol has come under scrutiny following ten student deaths in the last 18 months, some of which have been confirmed as suicides. Research shows that suicide rates among UK students have risen in recent years, but it remains difficult to make direct comparisons with the general population.
In May, 500 students marched to demand better mental health services, and a petition has been launched, calling for alumni to stop donating to the university until services are improved.
Grace Carroll, co-founder of Support Our Services, who organised the march, told the Cable: “Over the last 18 months there have been a lot of tragic deaths at the university, which has caused a groundswell of concern that the mental health services are not doing enough to help students.”
“We are going to the university to ask them to review their mental health policy because we’re not happy with the way that it works currently.”
Key demands are to reduce waiting times and for a “more personalised system” with familiar figures providing support. “People are kept on waiting lists to see specialists for months and in that time a person’s mental health can seriously deteriorate,” she said. The university has not yet specifically responded to individual demands.
New support this year includes two mental health advisors to signpost help for students with more complex needs, around 30 wellbeing advisors in academic schools and increased counselling capacity during busy periods – 2,000 extra sessions during exam time.
However, despite the investment of £1m, some students say money is being spent in the wrong places and more specialised psychiatric staff are needed instead of the signposting services offered by the new roles.
A parent of a student who took their own life also called for changes to data protection rules to make it easier for the university to inform them if their child is struggling to prevent them reaching crisis point.
The university has already caused outrage among students by proposing to reduce pastoral staff in student halls, including senior residents, who currently live in halls and are expected to be on-call at all times.
Instead of having staff in each halls, they will be based at three ‘hubs’. The number of Student Support Advisors, full-time staff in halls who provide a range of pastoral and admin support, are also being cut.
James La Fleur, who is on the committee for Peace of Mind, the student mental health society that offers support, says when needs aren’t being met, students have to do it themselves, which “allows students to empathise”, but “leaves lots of students by the wayside”.
Other criticisms include the growing student population making it easier to fall through the cracks, a lack of support for more complex issues and for students who have suspended their studies. The parent of a student who took their own life also called for changes to data protection rules to make it easier for the university to inform them if their child is struggling.
“My biggest complaint is that staff aren’t proactive enough in engaging with students who have problems. It’s always student-led. We’re adults, but they still have a duty of care,” he told the Cable.
La Fleur, who suffers from anxiety and depression, described his experience with university services as “hit and miss”. He has received useful help from a new wellbeing advisor in his school, but after two courses of student counselling looked elsewhere for support. “There aren’t enough counsellors. They’re doing everything they can but are just overstretched.”
He previously suspended his studies for a year. “During the suspension, you’re not technically a student so you don’t get support, you can’t enrol in student counselling.”
A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “We share the passion and concern our students and staff feel about mental health and wellbeing; it is the single biggest challenge the higher education sector faces.”
“We are implementing a whole institution approach to supporting student mental health and wellbeing with major investment to support student wellbeing in our academic schools, in our central services, and in halls of residence.
“Our new approach will see us reach out to help our students rather than wait to be asked for that help. We are putting in place a structure of preventative services and policies that avoids our students reaching crisis point.”
The spokesperson added the new pastoral model in halls would be in place by the new academic year, and would include a new team of full-time staff alongside live-in student mentors.