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The Student Mental Health Crisis: How UK universities are failing struggling students

Starting University is an exciting time for young people, offering us our first glimpse into adult life. It is only natural that huge expectations for this new life emerge in our teenage years.  Moving to university means making new friends, exploring a new city and having no one but ourselves to answer to. 

Perhaps this is what Will Bargate expected when he moved to Warwick Business School in 2020. Will was a promising 23 year old business undergraduate, and yet something went so horribly wrong that he ended up taking his own life only 3 months in to his first term.

The realities of student life can easily fall short of our grand expectations. The truth is that moving away from home can be an incredibly stressful experience, as we leave behind the family, friends and support systems we have relied on all our lives.

The anxiety which can arise during the first few months of University has only been exacerbated by the corona virus pandemic. Government restrictions have made it harder for young people to socialize and to build the networks they need to navigate the stresses of everyday life.

With shops and restaurants only now beginning to reopen their doors, many students have spent much of this year inside – confined within the four walls of an unfamiliar accommodation.

For those struggling with their mental health, without their parents or support network from home checking in, it can become even harder to reach out for help.

Shockingly, Universities are under no obligation to contact the parents of a student who begins to display signs that something is wrong. In the weeks leading up to his death, Will had stopped attending lectures. He was no longer submitting work and was unresponsive to University emails. And yet, no attempt was made to reach his parents over such worrying behaviour.

And yet, no attempt was made to reach his parents over such worrying behaviour. Instead, a letter was sent to Will to inform him that he had been excluded him from his course. The warning signs were ignored, signs which indicate that more could have been done to support Will through his struggles.

It is clear that over the course of this pandemic, the mental health of students, an issue which has long been overlooked, is now in a major state of crisis.

The University of Bristol desperately needs to improve its support service, with a 2019 Well-being Report finding that 45% of their students screened positive for moderate to severe symptoms of depression. More terribly, in the 18 months between October of 2016 and April of 2018 alone, 11 Bristol students died by suspected suicide. 

It was only last month that Olisa Odukwe took his own life. Olisa was described by his friends as a kind, gentle character, who brought a smile to the face of whoever he was with. His death has been felt by students across the country and is a stark indication that Bristol University has no time to waste. Their approach to mental health must change now. 

At long last, there is cause to hope that positive change is beginning in universities up and down the country, with a series of promising programmes recently introduced. FE News examined the mental health initiatives that have begun in UK universities over the last year.

A significant policy, certainly one which could offer a chance of long term change and benefits, can be found at the University of Bristol. Bristol is the first in the country to create a ‘Science of Happiness’ course, which aims to teach students strategies that will help them lead a more fulfilling life.

Change seems to have begun at Plymouth University too, which now allows students to book up to six free counselling sessions with trained associates. Clearly, institutions are beginning to recognise that more needs to be done to support students in this time of immense uncertainty and unease.

Restrictions may be easing, allowing us to once more to meet friends indoors and to hug our families, but if this year has taught us anything, it is that another lockdown could be sprung on us at any time – especially with the new variant from India rapidly spreading across England.

Now is the time to really start preparing student support, and the momentum created from these recent initiatives is a good place to start. Universities must look to their mistakes and learn from them.

Every university should be implementing new policies in order to protect their students, so that no other student is left alone, like Will and Olisa, to feel that they have no support and no options.

Co-social media manager, currently studying English literature at Bristol University.
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