As soon as you start school, the idea of going to university is planted in your brain. Countless trips to university campuses, alongside your teacher’s seemingly random anecdotes about how much fun they had, encouraged at least 411,000 students to start university in 2018.
Of course, there are many other routes young people can take: apprenticeships, traineeships or diving straight into work. While these have been increasing in popularity over the years: 105,000+ people under the age of 19 started an apprenticeship during the 2017/18 academic year), university remains one of the most popular options.
“It’s fun, isn’t it?” Jess, 22, is a former student representative at Southampton. “You get three years to have the time of your life and mess around.” This appears to be a general consensus amongst most students we spoke to. Of those surveyed, 66% voted “the student experience” as the biggest influence on them for going to university.
Tanya, 20, who is currently a student in London, explains: “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so uni seemed like the perfect solution. Three years of procrastinating life and having fun that I can look back when I’m older? Why would I do anything else?”
While student life is notorious and considered by many to be a rite of passage, it’s not all fun and games. For most, going to university means moving to a new city and starting a new life. If you struggle to fit in or make friends, it can be a challenge.
“The social aspect is so important, it completely changes your time at uni. If you don’t have a support system there, you’re going to struggle,” explains Rebecca, 33, a care professional at a top city university. “On top of that there’s the stress. The workloads are so difficult, and they’ve got to balance that with living alone for the first time.”
It’s perhaps no surprise then, that uni life doesn’t live up to its expectations for some. Life at university can be far from the dream for a lot of students, resulting in mass dropouts and increasing mental health issues amongst student bodies.
The University of Bristol has learned this the hard way. Over the past two years, 11 of its students are suspected to have taken their own life. The once-prestigious Russell Group establishment has now become the focus of controversy including criticism that it has failed to make provision for student well-being. Both students and parents have joined forces to question the university on its pastoral programme, wanting to know what exactly is going wrong.Jonathan*, 22, recently graduated from Bristol. He joined hundreds of his fellow students on a march to demand better pastoral care for students. The march took place on May 25 this year, shortly after three students are thought to have taken their lives in the lead up to exam season.
“It was ridiculous. We kept hearing about these deaths then it was swept under the rug. The response they [the university] had to these things was almost laughable. We wanted better mental health services, not free ice cream.”
Jonathan’s comments and the march itself are a reflection of the rising tensions between the University of Bristol and its students. Not only is there a question as to whether there is adequate pastoral care available, but whether students who are struggling are being taken seriously. 80% of those surveyed said they were unimpressed by their school’s reaction to the mental health crisis, with one even labelling it “embarrassing.”
“We wanted better mental health services, not free ice cream.”
Of course, mental health problems among students is nothing new, nor are they necessarily the university’s fault. Of the current students at Bristol we spoke to, 80% suffered from a mental health condition before starting at university. It would be irresponsible, or even idealistic, to assume that this is specifically an institutional issue though. According to YouGov, approximately one in four students in the UK suffer with their mental health, suggesting that there is a bigger issue within the educational system.
During the academic year 16/17, the Office of National Statistics recorded 95 students whose deaths were ruled as suicide. Students taking their own life is, unfortunately, not such a rarity. Rebecca, who has dealt with many students suffering from suicidal thoughts during her time as a care professional, explains: “University has changed in recent years. More people are going, which is fantastic, but it’s increasing competition. A university degree doesn’t hold the same value it used to, so students are under increased pressure to get even better grades or go even higher with their education.”
Stress is a recurring theme in the conversation about students and their mental health. In 2017, research from UniHealth revealed 82% of students suffered from stress and anxiety. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t take students seriously when they talk about stress. Obviously, everybody feels stressed sometimes, but it’s important to look at whether these workloads – whilst balancing part-time jobs and God knows what else – is having a detrimental effect on health,” adds Rebecca.
All of the past and present Bristol university students we surveyed said they felt stressed whilst at university, and 71% felt that the prestige of the university added to their stress. Alex*, 20, a current student, explains: “When I got into Bristol, it was amazing, I was flexing on Insta and everything ‘cause it’s such a good uni. I never thought I’d get in – and I don’t think my friends did either. I suppose that’s one reason why, when I started to struggle, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t think I belonged at that uni, so I didn’t want anyone to know how hard I was finding the work – especially in first year.”
“There is still a stigma surrounding mental health, even around young people. Sure, the younger generation might be accepting of others, but they’re surprisingly unforgiving to themselves and their mental health,” explains Dr. Aitkinson*, a psychology lecturer at a university in the South West. “Establishments with a highly regarded reputation are likely to have a higher number of students afraid to speak out. Nobody wants to be seen as an outcast.”
Russell Group universities, generally, are seen as the top universities in the UK. With only 25% of students throughout the country admitting they would ask for help when needed, it’s easy to see why Bristol – a Russell Group institution ranked 15th in the 2019 league tables – may have students who are struggling.
“They don’t care if we get sick, as long as we bring in the money.”
“I feel like, because it’s a Russell Group, they [Bristol University] don’t want to damage their reputation by admitting to the struggles of their students. Sure, they’d send out e-mails and stuff asking how we were doing, but it always seemed like the effort – and the care, actually – was barely there,” adds Jonathan. “People were taking their own lives because of the stress of exam season, and instead of teaching us to deal with stress, they gave us – like I said before – ice cream. Fucking ice cream.”
Stress – and Bristol’s response – leads to a feeling of contempt in many, and helps to illustrate the rising tension between staff and students at the university. “Stress during exam season is expected, but not suicides,” says Alex.
Nationally, only 25% of students say they would get help for stress and anxiety. With such a small proportion willing to seek help, questions are raised regarding universities’ abilities to cope. “If they aren’t coping with a quarter of students, how could they possibly cope with the real scale of mental health issues?” asks Rebecca. “Bristol is, unfortunately, an incredible example of institutions failing their students.”
“I don’t want to blame the pastoral team for this,” says Lucy, 23, who recently graduated from Bristol. “I visited them when I had issues of my own. The counsellor I had was very considerate, it just took a long time to get to her. The issue isn’t with the pastoral team is with the funding. The big guys, it’s like they don’t see us as individuals, they see us as walking coins. They don’t care if we get sick, as long as we bring in the money.”Funding is a tense topic at Bristol’s city centre campus. The mere mention of the word is met with a chorus of sighs and sarcastic laughs. Understandable, perhaps, given that one of the university’s solutions to the decreasing mental health of their students is to spend £1 million more on wellbeing services from Spring 2018. “That would be great if they weren’t throwing £300 million on a new campus,” says Grace, 19, a current student at Bristol.
“It really goes to show how important our lives are. They don’t care about current students, all they care about is getting more cattle through the door to fill their pockets; it doesn’t matter what happens to them when they’re here, though. As soon as they’ve got you through the door with the promise of a shiny new campus, they don’t care.”
George, 23, struggled with depression throughout his time at Bristol, and experienced the consequences which a lack of funding has first-hand. “Things started off okay, but by the second term in first year I was struggling. I couldn’t bring myself to go to class most days and I started to fall behind. I wanted a fresh start at uni and didn’t want depression to get the better of me so I e-mailed the counselling services.”
Even the automated response promising a meeting within six weeks didn’t put him off. “I was just proud of myself for making the first step, to be honest. I’d never done that before,” he explains. However, six weeks later, George was met with “radio silence”: “I tried twice more, but after that I was at a loss. I didn’t have the energy to keep pestering people, and I didn’t feel like it was important, surely if it was, someone would have spoken to me, you know?” Eventually, after weeks of no classes and no contact, George ended up dropping out.
It would be easy to look at George’s story alongside the students’ current anger and write off the University of Bristol as a failing institution. “In those first two years where nothing was done, sure,” says Jonathan. “My friends who are still there have said things are starting to change, though. About time.”
Speaking to a range of past and present students, it does appear as though things are starting to change at Bristol. Of the students we surveyed, 90% of those who graduated from Bristol before September 2018, said they didn’t know where to go if they were in need of urgent pastoral care.
Among current students this figure is only 60%. Alex, who is currently in second year, has noticed a shift: “My emails are getting flooded with well-being e-mails pretty much every week these days. Welcome week was full of reminders that the staff was here for us, that sort of thing.”“Normalising asking for help is essential in the fight for our mental health,” explains Rebecca. “It shakes off the taboo. If Bristol reinforces that help is available, and encouraged, their students will eventually start to relax and open up. If done correctly, it should change the atmosphere of the campus altogether.”
A changing atmosphere on campus is likely to be warmly welcomed. Perhaps it’s because it’s a Russell Group university, perhaps because of the classic degrees on offer, or perhaps because it’s a city campus. However, Bristol university has a reputation amongst students and locals. “They’re boring,” says Thom, 24, a graduate from the University of the West of England (UWE). “When I was studying, my friends and I at UWE would work hard but have fun. Our Bristol mates disappeared into their books fast, and whenever we saw them, they’d be stressed the fuck out. Uni’s about learning and having fun, not working yourself to death.”
With 57% of students saying there isn’t enough focus on the social side of university at Bristol, it seems as though Thom’s comments aren’t just down to old school rivalry between Bristol and UWE.
Of course, nights out and e-mails aren’t going to solve all of Bristol’s problems. They’ve also introduced some bigger regulations to deal with their mental health crisis. Originally, they had their fit to proceed programme. In this scheme, a student’s health would be assessed by care professionals. Due to the nature of this programme, it was only used in extreme cases.
“It could be the end of the road. Mostly you’d take time out or postpone your place, but sometimes you have to leave. I had to leave,” explains Finn*, 20, who left Bristol after a string of mental health problems. Since the beginning of the new academic year though, it appears this programme has improved. “Funding can do a lot, funnily enough,” notes Alex.
“Uni’s about learning and having fun, not working yourself to death.”
In September 2018, Bristol launched its most popular scheme yet: the opt-in system, which saw 94% of students (both new and returning) opting into a system which allows their parents or guardians to be notified if they are struggling with their mental health. Not only does this give parents the opportunity to step in if their child is suffering, but it gives staff greater pastoral responsibility as they are able step in when they see red flags in a student’s behaviour.
“This is a huge step. Previously, staff were unable to get involved if they saw someone struggling, they had to wait for that person to come to them. Now, if things seem severe, there is a way for them to step in and help,” explains Rebecca.
Out of the current students we spoke to, all of them had decided to opt-in to the scheme. “It just seemed like the smart thing to do. I lost a friend last year, a lot of us have lost friends or classmates, so we know the damage these issues can do. It’s also great because it’s like us students are taking a stand and looking out for each other, there’s a certain companionship in opening up about mental health,” Alex told us.
“There’s a certain companionship in opening up about mental health”
Whilst improvements are being made, it’s clear the fight for student mental health is far from over. During the 17/18 academic year, 94% of universities experienced an increase in the number of students contacting support services. To deal with this, more funding needs to be put into pastoral care.
Bristol University has had 11 deaths since 2016, and many believe they should consider putting more than £1 million extra into their mental health services: “If they’re spending £300 million on a new campus, they’ve clearly got the money, it’s time to walk the walk,” argues Jonathan. “New ID cards and spam e-mails about wellbeing are nice and all, but they’ve got to actually invest in their students’ wellbeing, not just make a big show of it.”
Alongside funding, there are other changes that students believe need to be made at Bristol. A more student-friendly, social approach to starting university is a change many students want: “A better social rep team wouldn’t go amiss,” says Alex. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re fine at freshers, but after that it all seems to die down. Yes, work is important, but university is a lonely place to be if you’ve got no one to hang out with during term time. A more social environment would change everything.”
For now, it seems as though Bristol is finally taking a step in the right direction. “The focus is on them, but every university needs to take note,” says Rebecca. “Students taking their own lives isn’t exclusive to Bristol, so we need to look at the bigger picture: the pressure we put our students under, the prospects upon graduating, or the university culture. These are all factors, and we, as care professionals or university staff, need to solve this crisis.”
“We will continue to review our support and work with students to build a healthy community for all.”
– Bristol University
A spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: “The increased use of mental health services at Bristol by our students over the past five years reflects a similar rise at universities nationally, and globally. Indeed, a recent survey conducted by Alterline of 14 UK universities (including Bristol) showed the issues we are facing here are no different to other similar institutions. It also reflects a real surge in mental health challenges facing young people of all ages which was recognised by the Government in its latest budget commitment of an additional £2billion real-terms increase in NHS mental health funding. The scale of the challenge means that all universities, not just Bristol, are re-evaluating every aspect of their student and staff mental health and wellbeing support and provision.
“Through the introduction of a University-wide approach, we are working with our students to help them build their life skills and resilience to cope with the pressures of modern life, and to identify vulnerable students as early as possible so that we can support them. In the short-term that may well mean we see more students accessing our support services as our teams proactively look to reach out to students who may need help. We have introduced wellbeing advisers in our academic schools to provide additional front-line support for students and early feedback indicates that this increased support has been well received by students.
“There has been much talk about the level of investment the University makes into Support Services. The University commits approximately £7.4m annually to our core wellbeing support services, including the Wellbeing Advisers, the Student Health Service, Counselling, Disability Services, the Residential Life Service and the Multifaith Chaplaincy. We also offer a range of additional support services (such as the Healthy Minds programme, peer mentoring and academic support programmes, the personal tutor network support) and the SU has a range of services (including Just Ask, clubs, societies and SU networks) which support or contribute to positive mental health and wellbeing. The investment in all these services and programmes is additional to the £7.4m core funding. We are committed to monitoring and reviewing all our services and the resourcing levels.
“We will continue to review our support and work with students to build a healthy community for all. This process is ongoing through consultation on the University’s new mental health and wellbeing strategies, one for students and one for staff.”
However, with University of Bristol students having taken to the streets once more on November 21, 2018, it looks like this conversation is far from over.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
If you are struggling with mental health problems, you can find help at mind.org.uk.
Feature image by BigBluBooks via Shutterstock