Article written by Mahum Mustafa
While I have been unable to put my thoughts into words for a matter of months, I am writing this piece out of a necessity and anger that has been sparked by an ongoing frustration with the university services. In light of the University releasing a statement about the eighth Bristol student to take their own life in a mere 18 months, I feel outraged. The statement claims “we work hard every day to keep our students safe and secure and to provide an environment and support network where they can thrive and grow,” and they “encourage students to make use of the advice and support available to help with this.” It’s all very well to use such unemotional and mechanical statements in the wake of another tragedy, but what lies behind these so-called ‘support’ services?
The bleak reality of the situation is multi-fold and rather shocking. The services the University currently provides for students struggling with mental health issues is sub-par, allowing many students to slip through the cracks. I can say this first-hand having been through some horrendous experiences myself over the past three years. I hope by sharing my own stories of difficulty that others will feel more inclined to seek help, whether that be from peers or family members, before the burden of suffering becomes unbearable. Additionally, I intend to draw light upon the urgency with which the university should be attempting to tackle the mental health problems, which are currently only increasing.
I’d like to start with the first port of call on the Student Support Services website, which is the Students’ Health Service. My first bad encounter with the GP service at Bristol was in second-year, a time when I was suffering from frequent and crippling anxiety which was affecting my life in every way possible. I was extremely fragile and vulnerable at this stage, and anyone that has suffered from mental health problems knows that a crucial reason why many people avoid seeking help is the idea that your issues are meaningless and possibly just ‘in your head.’ This is not true. And no one, especially not a medical health professional given a title as important and powerful as a Doctor, should be allowed to tell you that. As I sat in the GP’s office, sobbing in embarrassment at revealing the personal details of my life to a cold-eyed stranger who seemed more irritated by my presence than concerned, I heard the following:
• “Worrying and being afraid is a part of life, it’s not very nice but you have to accept it”
• “What’s the worst that could happen if you don’t get help?”
• “Is your counsellor not up to the job?”
These words were extremely damaging as I was being told my problems were essentially exaggerated and irrelevant. This heightened my struggle even more, as I felt at a loss with how to seek help. I wondered whether I had just made things up, and if I hadn’t had my friends to support me and tell me my problems were worth voicing, I would have believed it. On the other side of the GP services is the tendency to over-prescribe medications to young adults. While there are times when these medications are entirely necessary, I have gathered through personal experience that the GP’s are not thorough enough in investigating the root of problems before handing over a brain-altering drug for a minimum 6-month course. It is no wonder that so many students avoid visiting the GP for mental health problems and that so many fall victim to this neglect and oversight.
The Student Counselling Services are certainly not to blame for their shortcomings, as it is the lack of funding and resources which means they are entirely overstretched and unable to provide adequate services for prevention and management of mental health issues. I was lucky enough to find a counsellor who I had a real connection with, which is not the case for majority of the students I have spoken with about their experience. This was little comfort, however, as the maximum number of sessions provided to even a ‘high-risk’ patient (ie. if you are at risk of harming yourself or others) is four. After this, you’re on your own again, and if you want to continue to seek counselling the process has to be started from scratch. This means a long wait for an assessment session in which it is determined how severely you need the services, after which you may or may not be granted more individual counselling.
This waiting list prevents a large cohort of students from seeking help. What is most concerning is that when I was experiencing suicidal thoughts and voiced my concerns to the Student Counselling service, it took an entire two weeks to arrange a session with a counsellor. Feeling disregarded at a time when you are that unwell only aggravates the issues further. In this period of time my closest friends were my pillars of support, and I’d hate to think where I would be had they not been so understanding and willing to listen. For those students who are not as lucky to have people around them, or who are a long way from their families, the university services are a failure. It is a tragedy that the university is yet to recognise the necessity of PREVENTATIVE measures as opposed to REACTIVE ones against mental health. It shouldn’t take a vulnerable student revealing they are suicidal for their voice to be acknowledged.
There is widespread lack of empathy amongst the Bristol university tutors my peers and I have encountered, who give a ‘figure it out yourself, but just get it done’ approach to their students. As the first port of contact for a struggling student, the tutor should be adept with handling sensitive mental health issues and be able to have a personal relationship with their students. Time and time again, I have been met with suspicion instead of compassion, and ignorance as opposed to understanding. After explaining my struggle with depression and having to be medicated to a member of staff, and despite being advised to opt for an August extension for my deadlines because I was struggling with every mundane task, I was asked why I couldn’t ‘start writing 100 words a day,’ and to ‘get it done as soon as possible.’ I have felt immense pressure to get better and get the work done, which only catalyses mental health issues further. The coldness with which many tutors meet their students can heighten the highly pressurised university environment, as feeling unsupported academically can trigger the mental health issues which the university is supposedly trying to prevent.
The increasing demand for mental health services means the university would have to triple their expenditure to meet the demand, but the revised model at Bristol has increased from £2.6m to £2.9m in light of the appalling suicide figures at the university over the last two academic years. Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor of Bristol, blames student debt and social media for the increase in mental health issues, claiming ‘it’s not OK to have a bad day’ on Facebook and Instagram, causing young adults to feel bad about their lives. What he fails to acknowledge is the staff that are under his employment, who infer to the students that ‘it’s not OK to be falling behind’ and ‘it’s not OK to be struggling with the workload.’ Being a medic, one would have hoped Brady would have a greater understanding of the preventative measures against mental health issues and suicides in young people.
As my time in Bristol comes to a close, I can only hope that cases like mine and those who have not been as fortunate, cease to go ignored. The university cannot respond to every new incident of student suicide with an urging to ‘seek help from student support services’ when these services DO NOT do what they advertise. There needs to be a far greater emphasis on supporting student transitions into university, particularly identifying students who come to university with previous mental health issues; better tutoring in the face of sensitive issues and the manner in which these are dealt with; and a widening of the support bracket which would allow for students to seek help no matter how urgently this may be deemed, allowing issues to be contained before they reach a critical point. To any students struggling with these problems, please remember that your voice will be heard by someone, but you have to be open and honest with your friends, peers and family members. It is also possible to seek alternative services such as the Samaritans and PAPYRUS if the university is failing to meet your needs. Remember that as hard as it may seem, there is an end to every struggle and we can all recover.
And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” —Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami