Students say support is lacking for severe mental health needs, as Zoe found out.
“In the first few years of uni I was turned away because I wasn’t serious enough. Then when I was finally diagnosed I was turned away because I was too serious and too much of a risk.”
Zoe Hudson-Rose is a student at Bristol University, which has been criticised for not doing enough on mental health.
After suffering from physical and mental health problems, they are fighting the university to finish their degree (Hudson-Rose prefers using they/them pronouns).
They were turned away by the counselling service when feeling depressed in 2015. “I survived, but I felt very isolated. The thing that saved me was Peace of Mind society. It made me feel a lot less alone and more validated.”
The following March they were diagnosed with mild Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a stigmatised condition often associated with extreme behaviour. The diagnosis left them shaken and upset, but the counselling service said they were now too much of a risk and needed long-term private psychotherapy, which they couldn’t afford.
They were eventually seen a few months later after telling the counselling service they had gone through a sequence of serious personal events. “It was annoying that it had to get to that point. I don’t really know where that magic middle ground is.”
After suspending their studies last academic year, which was “the only option left”, they were kicked out of university for failing more modules.
Having already retaken years because of physical health problems, the university said they’d had their last chance. Only after an appeal and months of waiting were they allowed to continue their studies, which restart this September.
Their physical health problems complicate matters further. “I have a rare form of arthritis, which affects every aspect of my life. For a while that made me really isolated and made it hard to make friends, which made me depressed.”
“We all know the real issue is funding and in some cases a lack of training. The counselling service is understaffed and it’s not helped that Bristol Wellbeing Therapies, a general NHS service, has an even longer waiting list,” they say.
“The counselling service is the best option you’ve got, but it’s still not a good option – people are waiting for up to six months. Even if you’re in crisis you still have to wait for about a month – that’s not good enough.”
Hudson-Rose describes the new £1m wellbeing service as “glorified signposting”, adding that more counselling staff is what’s actually needed. They want to see better communication between different departments across the university, a clearer, more accessible system for extenuating circumstances with a lower proof threshold and mental health training for tutors.
They add that the counselling service is having to deal with a huge wave of students with complex needs that would usually be seen by the NHS. “Realistically they need to see a psychiatrist so there’s a limit to what counsellors can do. With the state of the NHS at the moment, (student counselling) are under so much more pressure.”
Mental health problems seem to particularly arise when people go to university, Hudson-Rose says. “You’re under so much pressure academically, you’ve put so much money into this, you’re stressed, overworked, you probably haven’t eaten or slept enough, and then people say ‘but these are the best years of your life’. It can feel like the end of the world.”
They think a lot of stigma remains around bipolar, BPD and schizophrenia, because people think of “really problematic stereotypes they see in the media”. For them, BPD means “having the same emotions as other people but more intense”. “When you have an episode of emotional intensity, it’s like being in the middle of a tornado. I can see what I’m doing but I can’t stop it or control it, which is really scary.”
The university has hired two mental health advisors to direct students with complex mental health needs to support.“Lots of students will come to uni with complex mental health problems or the stress of uni is going to trigger them. Two specialists is not enough,” Hudson-Rose says.
It’s no easy task to improve Bristol University’s mental health services, especially when they also have to pick up the slack of underfunded NHS services. However, despite the recent investment, some students remain unconvinced. “You need to commit to it and I don’t think our Vice Chancellor is going to do that.”